My sense of family was skewed at a very early age. My parents split up when I was barely out of diapers, and my biological dad was never a part of my life thereafter. My mom remarried a few years later, bringing a stepfather into my life that would become the man I call my dad today. With their marriage, I inherited not only a new father, but a whole new step-family.
This family never made me feel like a step-anything. My dad is the oldest in a line of five white children, raised Catholic (my dad now refers to himself as a “recovering Catholic”), but even five kids and church doctrine couldn’t keep my new grandparents together. When I came into the picture, they had already been long divorced, and since my own biological family was far from nuclear, it all seemed perfectly normal to me.
The patriarch of this new-to-me family, my dad’s father, has always been incredibly generous and kind to me. My parents must have been newlyweds the first time my new grandfather took me on a skiing trip, just the two of us. I remember dedicating a story to him in third grade about our adventures on the slopes; I still have it in the attic somewhere, and when I come upon it from time to time, I can’t help but sit down and read it from cover to cover, my eight-year-old prose detailing accompanied by rudimentary sketches in magic marker.
When my grandpa remarried, his new wife quickly became part of my happier childhood memories. The ceremony took place during some high stakes football game, and I can hear my father complaining about the timing. He smuggled a handheld Sony “watchman” into the reception so he could support their union while also rooting for his favorite team. For me though, it was one of the first times I got to share in the joy that is a BIG family wedding. My new step-step-grandma brought her own slew of kids to the now incredibly extended family. Perhaps it’s a hefty bout of nostalgia that makes me reminisce about that day in particular, but I look back at photos and feel so completely included in this new family.
When I decided to run away to the East Coast for college, my grandpa booked a flight to Boston to tour my new school during my senior year. In the winter. It was cold. Very cold. We walked the Freedom Trail. All three miles of it. In the snow. In March. He was a headstrong warrior, and a kind one that wanted me to know all that my new home could offer.
Years later, when I was fully out of the closet, he and his wife extended their sense of family to the man who is now my husband. They included him on lists of family birthdays long before we were officially married, and they treated him with the kindness that I remember so quickly tied me to this new extended family so long ago.
When we welcomed our daughter home from the hospital, they rejoiced with us, and when our son became a part of our family, they urged us to stop having kids. With nearly a dozen children between them and their previous marriages, they knew a thing or two about large families. “Remember, you can always get a table for four at a restaurant; anything more and you’ll be waiting for an hour,” my grandpa sagely advised.
They always send the kids a gift for Christmas and each of their birthdays even though they only get to physically see them once every few years. My kids’ pictures have always been included on a collage of great-grandchildren’s photos that has adorned the wall of their home, and the last time I was there, I was struck by the generosity of this act. The black and brown faces of the two children who have become my entire world sit next to the white faces of their distant cousins in that framed set of photos, and the sense of equality is profound for me as a father of two children of color, but also as a gay man of color myself, a man who entered this family only as an extension of my mother and who could have easily been relegated to secondary status in comparison to the other grandkids. It fills my heart with tremendous joy to think about the ways that my family has been included in this truly modern structure.
And now my grandfather is very sick. And he’s 3000 miles away. We’ve made plans for the entire family to visit at Christmas, but that may be too late. My own kids are probably too young to really understand the imminent loss, but I’m already mourning the future where my kids will have one less person who loves them in this world. One less person that ties them to a foundation of family that everything in their world will tell them isn’t as strong as the ties of biology. To counterbalance that approaching sense of grief, I want to celebrate his life, and cataloging these feelings and memories here helps a bit. I know it will also help me find some answers when my kids ask me to tell them about my family–both sooner and later with different levels of maturity and understanding. When that happens, I will continue to speak honestly and openly, as I do now, about the people in our lives who understand that our family’s diversity should be a source of inclusion and equity, and my grandpa will always be an example of how that principle can be put into practice.