Barely A Family

Donna Reed as Donna Stone, Paul Petersen as Je...

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Some words blow on the wind only to evaporate into nothingness. Other words live on in your heart and mind long after they are spoken. Then there are those that haunt you forever. Such was the case when my son, who was then about three, told me “Mom, we are barely a family.” Those words still resonate today.

 It had been an ordinary day, so ordinary in fact that I don’t remember much about it. I just remember walking along with my son along our street. Was it day or was it night? I don’t remember. Were we going to his school or coming back from it? I don’t remember. I just remember those words. Or were we walking at all, maybe he said in the cramped quarters of our apartment, somewhere between the commercial and the show. Ugh! Why can’t I remember? Yet the moment he said it, I remember feeling like I had been socked in the stomach. I remember the ache of his profound truth that pierced my heart. Everything in me wanted to cry and hug him and tell him that I was so sorry, he was right, we were barely a family. How could I look him in the eye and tell him my selfishness had brought this to pass. I couldn’t dump all my guilt on this little boy. He deserved better.

I did my best to suck it up. I asked him, “Why are we barely a family?” He went on to explain, “Because there are only two of us.” So I asked him how many do you need to have a family? He told me, “At least three.” There it was! The truth spoken from a child- a family is not any composition you wish to make it. I had tried to convince myself that, that was the case. I had tried to convince myself that love is all that mattered. I had tried to convince myself that he and I were a family. His words sent me catapulting back to my youth, back to my “barely a family” days.

At fifteen, I was locked away in Camarillo State Hospital for my one suicide attempt after my father died at fourteen. All semblance of family had been utterly destroyed. I was locked away with kids who also had “barely a family.” There was a boy [there is always a boy isn’t there?] and we fell in love. Locked away, torn apart by our sins and the sins of our family. I would become the wife and he would be my husband. My two best friends would become “our daughters.” If we could not have our family, we would generate our own. We would be the traditional nuclear family, if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. I would be the understanding, compassionate Donna Reed mother. My “husband” would be the protective father. We would give to “our children” what hadn’t been given to us. We would be the parents we always wanted.

We are back to the present. I am taking Anthropology 01 here at LACC and I am told that chimpanzee males don’t really participate in the upbringing of their offspring. Maybe my son’s father is part chimpanzee. That is really all about the mother and her child. I feel for those single, chimpanzee moms-it can’t be easy. I know it isn’t for me. I wonder if their offspring ever tells them, “Mom we are barely a family.” Do those words hurt them as much as they hurt me?

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