Ninety-nine percent of family life has centered on group living -- in caves, in frontier settlements, on farms. Not until the 20th century did nuclear families, void of extended kin, routinely seek their own homes. The downsized family of two parents and one child in one house occupies a tiny fraction on this timeline; one parent with one child in one house is but a twinkle in its eyes.
Almost immediately after my ex-husband moved out, I felt vulnerable, as if my 3-year-old son, Erik, and I could fall victim to a saber-toothed tiger, a dust storm, or an unethical door-to-door salesman.
Over the next three years, mealtimes at our small, wooden kitchen table became like bad dates as I prodded Erik with questions.
"How was school today?"
"What, specifically, did you do in PE?"
"What's your favorite number?"
We needed more life. A larger family. We needed what families have sought for centuries: a strong male to unite and protect.
I decided to get one. Other divorced women do it, so why not me?
Magazine photos started to catch my eye -- photos featuring backgrounds of the outdoors, foregrounds of the blissful twosome cuddling.
It was time.
I spotted his photo on the Internet one Saturday morning in March, when Erik was with his father, and I made the arrangements. We would meet in two hours. I phoned my ex-husband and told him what I planned to do. "For Erik's sake, be careful," he said. "They all seem good at first."
My heart fluttered when we met. The more I learned about him, the more I could imagine him as a part of our family.
He had a brother and two sisters. He used to live on an Indian reservation in northern Wisconsin. He went by the name of Wyoming and transferred to Milwaukee just two weeks ago. He liked the outdoors (as did I). He liked exercising (as did I). He was charming. He was cute. He was clean. I wanted this guy.
We went inside and I slapped $60 on the counter. "I'll take him," I told the woman at the cash register.
"Not so fast," she said. Unlike online dating sites, the Humane Society enforced a 48-hour waiting period for all unions.
For two days, his furry face flashed constantly in my mind until at last Erik and I returned to certify our commitment. The dog, whom we had renamed Jingles, paced with last-minute jitters as a counselor sat us on a wooden bench by two rows of rabbits.
"Do you have a house with a yard?" she asked.
"Do you have children?"
"I do," I said and looked at Erik, beaming beside me. This exact moment was the best moment of our lives since the divorce.
"And do you have time to walk him every day?"
"I do," I said and slipped a collar over his neck. True to his Internet photo, Jingles was covered with black and white patches, had short fur, a long tail, and sweet brown eyes. He was short and cute and I knew he'd blossom into tall and handsome with a voice deep enough to keep us safe. He was everything I had wanted.
Ten minutes and sixty dollars later, we were legally joined and the three of us climbed into my waiting vehicle and drove off to start our new lives together as a blended family. Fittingly, it was the first day of spring.
Back home, Erik and I sat at the kitchen table, looking down at Jingles. Something didn't feel right, and after an awkward silence Erik said, "Do we have to keep him?" My stomach sank as I recalled that my first honeymoon had followed the same script. Was I just another woman locked in repetition compulsion?
"Let's give it time," I said and arranged my face muscles into a smile. We opened the door and let Jingles outside, where he pooped, then snacked on it. My fantasies had not included this.
Happily, love proved a different journey this time around. I clipped through the stages of love: the initial near psychotic high (he's perfect!), the post nuptial disenchantment (he's a poopeater?), the realization that I, too, had shortcomings (I expected perfection) and finally, mature and accepting love (till death do us part).
Thus, our stronger, larger family was born. Jingles accompanied me on daily walks through the woods. He sat calmly as Erik read him "Go Dog Go" and other books. In batting practice, he played the outfield, delivering soggy tennis balls to whoever was pitching. Like all great dogs, he became the most steady of confidants, and when I became engaged during Erik's high-school years, Jingles' guru-like presence eased the adjustment for all of us.
Ten years after we bought him, Jingles, Erik, my husband and I took a long walk in a riverside park. It was a March day after a particularly harsh Wisconsin winter and earthy smells had started to replace the scent-free winter air. I watched Jingles run as he had nearly every day since he joined our family -- joyfully and seemingly smiling. At some point that afternoon his stomach twisted, and three hours later, a family member was gone.
Erik left home the following year for college, a metal dog tag tucked in his wallet. Soon, I began to prod my husband with questions over dinner. "How was work?" "How was that meeting with your boss?"
Maybe the two of us need more life, a larger family. I've been online and checked out a few candidates. It's almost time to meet some face to face.