On the Facebook page of my 26-year-old son--a place I am not encouraged to visit but do, occasionally, when too much time elapses between calls home to me--I noted recently that he identified himself as one of nine siblings. This took me aback for a moment, because I only gave birth to three children. This particular son is the youngest of those original three.
Then--twenty years ago-- his father and I got divorced. His father got together with someone else, who had three children from a previous marriage. She and my ex-husband had a baby, now nine years old. Earlier this year -a little late in the game, some might say (but I was only 56)--I adopted two little girls from Ethiopia.
Add them all up. It comes to nine. (And that doesn't even include the adopted Guatemalan daughter of the man with whom I keep company, or his stepdaughter from a previous marriage. Or my new daughters' three older brothers, back in Ethiopia. Each person offering not only the opportunity for one more relationship of some sort with me, but with every other member of the large and growing network.) I always said I wanted to be part of a big family and it turns out that I am.
In the 1950's when I was growing up, the definition of family was pretty clear and unambiguous, and reinforced nightly on virtually every family sitcom of the times. (And believe me, I watched them all. Child, myself, of what we now know to call "a dysfunctional family", I studied those shows the way some people study National Geographic specials of obscure tribal rituals in faraway lands. I wanted to know what normal life was supposed to be like, and I believed those programs might reveal the answer.)
Like a number of people I know who grew up feeling like outsiders, I became a writer--a line of work I've practiced full time for close to four decades now, since I was eighteen, Fifty-three years since the debut of "Leave it to Beaver," there remains no topic more compelling to me than that endlessly mysterious and complicated tangle, the American family. When people ask what I write about, that's what I tell them: The drama of human relationships. I'm not even close to running out of material.
Of course, the definition of what constitutes a family has evolved and expanded considerably since that early model presented by the TV shows of my youth. Growing up in the fifties and sixties, I can only remember knowing one child, ever, whose parents got a divorce, and hardly any whose mother "worked" at anything besides raising her children. (My mother--a Harvard PHD, but unemployable at the state university where my father taught--sold encyclopedias door to door and tutored Latin for a dollar an hour before creating a career for herself as a writer. A friend's mother in that same town--a physician who similarly found herself unable to gain employment--committed suicide when my friend was around twelve. Not that anyone talked about this for another twenty years.)
On the surface, the small New Hampshire town where I grew up might have looked like the perfect setting for a TV show of the times. There were no gay couples in our town. Nobody I knew had step-parents. There were no single mothers other than widows. No interracial families. (It had been shocking enough that my Christian father married my Jewish mother.) I knew a couple of adopted children but my mother told me never to bring the topic up with those children because they didn't know they'd been adopted.
There were plenty of alcoholics in our town (including my own beloved father). We just didn't talk about their problem. So when, one night, my father abandoned our family car with the motor still running, in the middle of the road directly in front of where we lived, the policeman who stopped by our house to find out what was the matter--hearing that my mother was out and my father had gone "to bed"--simply moved the car into the driveway, himself, before heading off into the night without issuing so much as a warning ticket. And I got back to my TV show.
Over the years of my writing life I've published seven novels. All of them (with the possible exception of one, "To Die For") are about families. And for all the families I've portrayed over my many years as a writer, I have yet to center my story on a so-called "normal" family made up of husband, wife and children.
In my last novel, "Labor Day," the family at the heart of the book (set in New Hampshire, as my stories are so often) consisted of two people: a desperately lonely agoraphobic single mother and the thirteen-year-old son who had assumed the role, in her life, of confidant, caretaker and protector. When she finally meets a man, and ultimately creates a loving relationship with him, they have the minor obstacle to deal with that he is a convict on the run.
My new novel, "The Good Daughters"--out this month--follows two families over the course of the fifty year span from roughly the time when I was born to the present. Though on the surface one of these two families would appear to match the television model (farmer husband, devoted wife, and their five daughters), their story, like my own growing up, is shaped less by what is said than by their silences and secrets. No reader of this novel will be any more surprised, reading it , than I was, writing the story, when it became clear that the daughter of one of the two families I had been writing about turned out to be gay. (This is something I love about the writing process, by the way: that if you create a believable character, at some point she takes on a life of her own and the character and nature you've crafted for her suggest certain inevitable events and actions almost beyond the writer's control.)
I think of myself as a realistic writer, not a creator of soap opera or melodrama. But over the course of the five decades of family history chronicled in this new book of mine, some of the family stresses and challenges that take place include infidelity, incest, divorce, abortion, Alzheimer's disease, sexual abuse, chronic illness, infertility and international adoption, and bipolar breakdown. That's a pretty daunting list of troubles and challenges, but when I consider the real-life histories of most families I know well, it's rare than one or two of those situations haven't come up. Often more.
"Live long enough and everything happens," an old Jewish saying goes. This has always been so, no doubt. We are just a little more able to talk about it these days.
More than any other setting--more than battlefields or boardrooms or a spaceship headed for intergalactic travel--I'll put my money on the family to provide an endless source of comedy, tragedy and intrigue. Put men and women under the same roof, mansion or hovel--give them parents and a child or two, a sexual attraction (to each other, or someone else), and let time pass. I can guarantee you stories will emerge. My lucky job is getting to tell them.