An Atypical Engagement: Brooke Berman's Happy Family

It's One Big Happy Family season here at This Writer's Life. In celebration of the book's paperback release I have asked a number of the writers from "One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Polyamory, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood, and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love," to reflect upon how things have changed (or remained the same) in their own lives since they wrote their essays over a year ago. Further, I've also asked various writers I admire to discuss their wild, messy, loving, non-traditional families as well. Below, Brooke Berman talks about her happy family:

An Atypical Engagement: Or, A Wandering Jewess Finds Home

by Brooke Berman

I never cared much for family. As the only child of a single parent, my first experience of family meant sisterhood -- Mom and me, "You and Me Against the World" (Helen Reddy circa 1973) was our anthem. In the early 70's, in the Detroit suburbs, I was proud of how radical our family seemed. There was only one other divorcee in my entire elementary school -- and my mom befriended her so that they could join the horribly prejudiced (no single parents allowed) PTA. I loved having my mom to myself, and I loved our life together. I was proud of her as she put her business together and thrived. The rest of the world had clearly gotten it wrong when they insisted that a family include a dad. But my mother had grown up on "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" and bought the entire package -- she wanted a house, a husband, an English sheepdog and a car full of kids. And so, when I was ten years old, she remarried. We moved into my stepfather's house where, for a few tumultuous years, we enacted Mom's fantasy of the nuclear family. (During this period, on an escalator at Neiman Marcus she said, "If I ever write a book, I will call it I Was Normal For A Year and Didn't Like It") It did not go as she had hoped. Throughout her second marriage, "family time" meant tears, hysteria, fighting and then, sullen trips to apple orchards or restaurants where both mother and stepfather pretended that the earlier tears, hysteria and fighting had not occurred. I found that I had to separate myself from them entirely in order to breathe. And so I moved to New York City where I could melt into a sea of orphans, following the lead of everyone from Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick to Matthew Weiner's Don Draper, seeking reinvention.

Mostly it worked. For nearly 20 years, New York City and I embraced one another with gusto. I built a series of makeshift families and, as I discuss at length in my upcoming memoir No Place Like Home, lived in a series of dwellings. I did not, of course, come to New York with the dream of so many homes or so many families. But I work in the theater where orphans and their makeshift families are standard fare. Thus, I pursued art, adventure, love affairs and writing fodder -- a life in the theater -- rather than, say, a marriage partner, a stable income, a mortgage or a 401K. And I moved a lot. Although this life was often stressful, for the most part I felt happy and free. I was pursuing my dream! If you asked me five years ago what family meant, I'd have pointed to a corner table at the West Bank Café on 42nd Street where a circle of theater people were celebrating an opening. What more does any girl need? I made the city -- and the theater -- my home.

But all that has changed. Because two years ago, on the verge of moving to LA, I fell in love with a diehard New Yorker entrenched in his rent-controlled 1BR. And after a year of La Vida Bicoastal -- during which he constantly reminded me that he does not believe in long distance relationships and that he needs more physical stability than I seem to -- now, we are settled in a loft in downtown LA and getting married. The loft is temporary. It belongs to our friend Rick, who has graciously agreed to let us live with him. To my delight, another makeshift family! Eventually of course, we will move out and get our own place. But for now, sharing space has made all three of our lives easier and more affordable. We even spent Thanksgiving together, as a family, with Rick's bandmate from Hi Fashion 9.99.

But although we've been engaged nearly a year, no wedding is on the horizon. Once betrothed, to my own surprise, I realized that I had very little invested in a traditional wedding. I don't want to go to City Hall or anything, but the more I window-shop or lurk along the edges of The Wedding Industry -- glossy magazines, reality shows, websites -- the less I see myself participating in its rituals. I cannot fathom spending more on a party than I do on my annual rent or walking down any aisle in a flouncy white dress asserting that today I'm "a princess"? (I'm a princess every day.)

For us, creating a wedding is less important than creating a marriage. And in our marriage, creative goals are key. We are both writers who have spent the better part of the last year working day and night to complete books. (Mine -- No Place Like Home -- came out this month.) Who has time to plan a wedding or haggle with caterers when there are drafts to rewrite and deadlines to meet? And so we are happily spending the first year of our engagement writing our books, living communally, and not planning our wedding.

We're not ignoring it exactly. After he proposed and I accepted, my fiance asked, "What do you want?" I said, "I want my grandma. You?" He said, "A rabbi." So we know that when The Event happens, it will involve my grandma and a rabbi. I have no idea what else will go down. But how fascinating to note that the "family" part of wedding will include some blood relatives, a friend or two, and religion. I am, after all, marrying a nice Jewish boy. Oh, and it will probably happen in New York, which despite my present circumstances, will always be home.

Brooke Berman is the author of the memoir No Place Like Home. She is also the author of numerous plays and screenplays, including SMASHING and HUNTING AND GATHERING. Visit her at