I grew up as an only child from the age of 0-13. Oddly enough, I would figure out one of my family’s biggest secrets through what was the fairly benign routine of looking through old family photo albums. This is my memory of that day (in Kinderhook, NY, where my gramp’s house was fairly famous as a gathering place every summer):
Me, bored, flipping through dusty albums that sat (for YEARS) on a dusty shelf in my gramp’s tiny living room. I don’t know that I ever felt possessed to look through them before, but I knew something was amiss pretty quickly. After several pages, I started seeing a younger version of my dad (going into the Navy) and then my dad with a petite, brunette woman. The pictures were all in black and white, but there was no mistaking that the woman was not my (tall, red-headed) mother. I got the courage up to ask my dad (who was cooking breakfast in the kitchen) about the pictures; somehow, my dad feigned calmness and told me that the woman was a cousin.
Me: hmm… sure (in my brain).
Me, bored, again flipping through the next album. This time, the shock value was huge: my dad was joined by the woman and a tiny blonde girl. The little girl looked like me (i.e. she looked like my dad). More fuel: my dad, the little blonde and another tiny girl, this time a brunette with lighter eyes (coloring like my own, though she looked more like the unknown woman). And then, the most condemning evidence (another picture):
Tiny girl 1, tiny girl 2
The enormity of what I had just discovered was sort of lost in my bizarre need to confront my dad. I can’t say why I didn’t think my next step(s) through more rationally. My feet marched me into the kitchen, my hands laid the album down (open to state’s evidence #1: Christmas card), and my mouth said: “you were married before”. The look of horror, anger, rage, upset, sadness – really, my dad’s face was like something out of a surrealist painting. He yelled something about not wanting to tell me; how it was a sad story, and threw what I believe was the spatula he had been using across the kitchen. My dad was, at the time, an imposing man. I was terrified to the point of sprinting the short distance into the miniature guest bedroom where I threw myself onto one of the spindled double beds and consoled myself by babbling nonsensical things to Ben, my grandfather’s hunting dog (a constant companion on visits). I am sure he thought his human friend had suffered a psychotic break.
I probably cried for a good hour. I heard aunts and uncles going in and out of the house, muffled conversations about me figuring things out, gasps. My dad finally came in to the guest bedroom and the version I saw walk through the door was a shadow of who my dad had been just that same morning. I felt awful; I had done something to my dad. He was wrecked. It was my fault.
Of course, it wasn’t my fault, but you never forget the first time(s) you see a parent cry. You blame yourself, no matter how improbable it is that you are the cause. He had been crying, he would continue to cry. He was very angry as he told me (tears in his eyes) about how he had been married, how it ended badly, and how he didn’t want me to be hurt and had decided not to tell me (he had also asked my mom and the rest of the family not to tell me). I think I just stared at him, in shock. While he was talking I had this weird marquee scrolling behind my eyes: I am not the only one. I am not his only one. There was something so sad to that for me – but there was also something fascinating. Me, I had sisters. I wasn’t, after all, an only child. I wasn’t alone.
The rest of that conversation escapes my memory completely. Suffice it to say, it was a turning point in my young life. In simply knowing that I had siblings, my life was changed.
It would be years before I finally met my sisters (along with 1 niece and 2 nephews), but once I did meet them, the connection was pretty obvious. Women I had never known (along with their own kids) were my sisters. People who were previously strangers were now companions in this life.
Although we’ve continued to live pretty separate lives over time (I lived in Miami, they lived in Reno and Pebble Beach), social media – and my fateful move to California – have kept us consistently connected. I’ve seen the older of my two sisters a few times over the last several years; we are similar in our views on people and the craziness of life. I feel a special bond with her. I’m also close with my youngest niece and nephew. My niece is beautiful, talented (sings, dances), and wise beyond her years; we share a sick sense of humor (and, of course, all of the aforementioned traits). My nephew is a constant reminder of my dad – he looks a LOT like him; he looks like a McComb (think: tall lumberjack). In pictures together, I feel like we could actually be taken for siblings. He’s also musically talented and shares the humor gene. The similarities are all crazy, and I delight in them
25 years later, it’s still hard for me to fully articulate the story when people ask if I have siblings or what it was like growing up as an only child. I feel some measure of pain in sharing that my family didn’t tell me something (important). But pain makes people do … interesting things. In writing this, I was reminded that my sisters (nieces, nephews) have been a part of my life and memory for twice as long as they weren’t.
Most importantly, they’re not going anywhere. I love them. They are a part of me (I’m a part of them) and that can never change.