a tale of two families

navigating intimacy

When I was younger, visiting a new friend’s home filled me with a thousand small thrills. I loved watching the way the family interacted. The camaraderie between siblings, the intense and inane knowledge each member of the family had about the others’ lives. I loved it for the same reason I spent most of my time as a youth in front of the TV watching Full-House marathons. I fantasized about familial love. I wanted it for my own.

When I got older and gave up on ABC reruns, I found new ways to survey the happy family. I would weasel into dinner invites with friends and their parents. Outstay my welcome at their homes. Skim through their family text groups.

I became an expert on the intimate nuclear family.

There is no perfect family. But you don’t need perfect, you need loving. And from my research conducted at strangers’ dining room tables, I learned that all you need to be a loving family is constant communication—a live stream of updates on the same topics you cover with a close friend (love interests, grades, general dispositions of contentment or angst). A happy family is a clique you are granted access to as a birthright.

My family was a happy family too, in the sense that we were all content. We worked hard, we socialized, we had family dinners at which homemade eggplant parmesan was served.

But I would not say that just because we were all moderately happy individuals, we were necessarily a happy collective. I was happy, my mom was happy, and my brother was happy. But the seeds for this happiness were planted in various gardens outside the immediate family, and I think we were all a little more peaceful post-parmesan, when we could return to our disparate rooms.

When I was seven, my parents divorced and my dad moved to upstate New York, removing my easy access pass for having a dad. And while he made sure to send his love in emails and call the house weekly, his fatal acceptance of the short end of the divorce stick gave our relationship a jagged edge.

When my dad moved out, my mom picked up the reigns of the house flawlessly, as if they had been hers the whole time. She was a master of logistics and used the skill to organize every doctor checkup and teacher check in, while picking up two new full-time jobs along the way. By the time I was 12, she was juggling three jobs with two kids and one dog that needed to be taken to the vet periodically for bladder meds. Her event calendar read like it was meant for three.

As a 24 hour professional, my mother exchanged intimacy for perfectly running cogs. Turning her professional prowess towards the family, she ran it like a factory line, with my brother and I functioning as the star outputs. If checked off as groomed, clothed, and in good health, we were deemed sufficiently packaged and sent out into the world. There simply wasn’t time for Full House intimacy.

But then, I found a new family.

Before I met the Koppelmans, I had been avoiding the Koppelmans. After dating their son, Sam, for a month, I still had not made contact with the other members of the family, and my constant coming and goings from their home were bordering on trespassing. I could already envision the moment one of them caught me sneaking into the apartment, shoes in hand and make-up smeared. I dreaded the moment appropriately.

There were a few close calls. An illogical number of times spent hiding under the covers, for no reason other than “what do you say to a family whose son you’re sleeping with before they become the family whose son you’re dating”?

Finally, after another few weeks of cat and mouse, in which the family begged me to come out of the woodwork—my lacy shirt carefully folded on top of Sam’s gym shorts, a fresh toothbrush added to the toothbrush holder—the time had come to cease being the ghost of apartment 11B.

On this particular morning in early June, the home glazed with a lazy Sunday residue, I did the right thing and walked into the kitchen instead of out the door.

The kitchen is where the entire Koppelman family conglomerated, hovered over their laptops and various leftovers. I’d known this since I first started sleeping at Sam’s, always hearing voices emanating from the room, while I side-stepped it to get to the front door.

But, this Sunday, for the first time, I had joined the Koppelman family in their natural habitat. Now, I was the strange voice in the kitchen.

To the family’s credit, I didn’t feel strange. Rather, it was as if a random girl in Sam’s boxers was what they faced every Sunday. They even had food prepared for her.

In a swirl of movement, I was dined and coffeed and complimented and offered Sam’s clothing, which his mom said would look better on me anyway. My head was spinning, but I was happy.

So happy that I came again. And again. And by the end of the summer, that kitchen was a second home.

Absorbing the banter of a family that knows each other, exposed to the intimacy of a family with everything on the table and nowhere they’d rather be, I ate the cookie butter they offered me and felt pure contentment.

So much pleasure at such a constant exposure level clouded my mind. I loved being fawned over and I basked in it like sunshine. But when I came out of the rays, I felt pangs of guilt that I was somehow cheating on those with my DNA.

The guilt still cuts sometimes. But the pangs are padded by intense appreciation.

Though she may not always have stuck around to reap the benefits, my mom did everything for me, and I know that. I would not be where I am, would not understand the complexity of humans in the way I do, without her.

Just when I convince myself my mother is too distant, her screws pop off and the heat built up underneath her engine hits me in a rush of warmth. In these moments, I’m overcome with the reminder of all she has done and all she has put up with.

And these small moments are enough.