You only really hear disgruntled or dispossessed family members say it, about the people they came from biologically and at one point definitively left. It rings with a certain finality, a sense that after leaving their family of origin, people who say “family of origin” were Cain-like wanderers upon the face of the earth.
You don’t hear people saying, “Oh, I just love my family of origin.”
They usually pause right after origin to sneak in a silent clause. “My family of origin,,, was dysfunctional.” Which you get the feeling means something like, “My family of origin [may they rot in hell], was dysfunctional.” You usually don’t hear orphans use it – “My family of origin was killed in a car wreck.” When a tragedy’s involved, people stick with more familiar monikers – “My mom and dad and my sister Shirley.”
My dad has a family of origin. He’s never said those words and I doubt he ever would and he’s hardly a Cain-like-wanderer-upon-the-face-of-the-earth type of guy, but what family was left by the time he took off as a kid was not exactly the white-picket-fence nuclear-family post-war Norman Rockwell dream. I don’t know his family of origin at all, and have heard very little about it over the years.
When my mom came along, he adopted her family. And this is the good news about families of origin – you’re not stuck with them. There’s all kinds of families out there, and so many of them will take you in. And even if you have a good family, you can always use another good one. I feel lucky – people who believed in blessings would say I’m blessed – to have the number and quality of families I call my own. And this is what I was thinking about when I thought about writing this post.
I’ve seen this – we’ve all seen this – countless times, but it never fails to impress me as one of the great things about life and the human spirit. It’s one of the great tropes of storytelling for a reason – taking someone in, being taken in, providing for another, being cared for and supported by others are the things that remind us what matters in life.
So my dad adopted my mom’s family, and was convinced his kids would have something more than a family of origin, and we have. My family of origin is my family. Period. All our weirdness and dysfunction is preeettttty minimal in the grand scheme of things – we get along and talk and say “I love you” and mean it. They’re there for me in everything. (I didn’t always know this, but it was always true.)
Come May, I’m marrying into another rock-solid family. I’ve lived with this family before, so they’re family already and it doesn’t seem like a huge deal that I’m officially becoming an in-law, but way back when, when I first started coming around, they took me in immediately, no questions asked. Well, I think maybe a few questions, but they were things like,”Wanna go for a boat ride?” and “Can you use a Sawzall?” After that, golden.
And best of all, of course, is the idea that Erin and I are making our own family, together, for some other little people to one day come from. (And never never never never never leave. Ever.)
Anyone who’s been on a serious sports team knows what additional or surrogate families are all about. You do together the hardest things you’ve ever done and (unless you go into the military afterwards) probably the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. You spend an inordinate amount of time together, during most of which you’re exhausted and not at your best and in your sweats and eating. (Especially swimmers – always with the eating.) My UVa swimming family is a lot like a large extended regular family, because I didn’t always like everyone I swam with, but I loved them and would to this day do anything for them. One of my teammates, a guy I really love and respect a lot, told me about a year ago, after listening to me describe the novel I’m writing and my pilgrimage to India and my SoCal routine and a few other things that are just simply outside of his Virginian sports-watching lawyering lifestyle, “You know, Prichard, there’s no real reason we’re friends. If it was’t for swimming, we would never be friends. Never.” Kinda funny, the way he said it, but probably true.
After college, I worked as a Jones Beach Lifeguard, and let me tell you, that is a crew. Teachers, firemen, artists, cab drivers, musicians, computer programmers, soldiers, businessmen, businesswomen, some cops – some robbers, too, probably – who spend their summers at the beach saving lives. And at Jones Beach, that’s no macho I-save-lives bs posturing. You’re running rescues constantly there. Constantly. People getting scared, getting swept out, getting saved, barely living – sometimes dying. Hundreds of thousands on the beach. (Seriously – there were 275,000 there July 4th, 2005.) Tourists, Long Islanders, Indians in saris, guys from the Bronx in Timberlands – in the ocean, in Tims – who’ve never seen the ocean before. And these lifeguards take care of all of them, and they depend on one another to help them keep the hordes safe. And they’re New Yorkers, so it’s a tough kinda love they share – and not one they frivolously give away. But those guys and gals let me into their world and their hearts and it was an experience and a group of people I’ll never forget.
I’d love to have a creative family, but writers are by and large not very familial people. Well, they might be on their own, but for the most part they’re not looking to hang out with other writers that much. It’s a more or less solitary pursuit, and except for children’s books and TV writing and the odd movie script, writing doesn’t really benefit from collaboration. It’s not like music, so much more than the sum of its parts. There’s so much doing-your-own-thing. What am I gonna do, sit five of us in a room and write a book? That’s why god created Williamsburg coffee houses. To be honest, I have no desire to sit around talking about what I’m working on for more than a couple minutes, tops. We try (especially us Millennials – we can’t even help ourselves) but even communities of writers are hard to come by, let alone families.
I have this other family, too, this strange assemblage of freaks and misfits and ne’er-do-wells all trying to get our lives back on track and/or keep them there. I’ve met a few of my best friends in this group, and some of the strongest people I’ve ever known. They’re allies in a weird fight that a lot of people out there don’t even know they’re fighting. In this group in particular there are a lot of people who come from nobody and nowhere. People who have families of origin – families they left or who left them. These people have discovered in this motley crew the family they never had. And that, man, is something to see.