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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Once parents had many children, now children have many parents

One day in the summer of 1971, my parents held hands, closed their eyes and jumped out of their conventional marriage into something strange and new. I was 9 years old at the time, and we were camping at Betsy Lake in the High Uintas Wilderness with another family of five. We were halfway into the camping trip when the six of us kids realized our parents had mixed and matched: My father was in the tent with their mother, and their father was in the tent with my mother.

No sound came from either tent. I remember the smell of mosquito repellent. I remember gray ripples in the lake, squirrels scrambling up pine bark and us kids nervously discussing. I remember trying to believe my life hadn't shot off its safe, predictable tracks.

Of course, it had. We began seeing the other family at least once a week; one of my parents spent each Sunday at their house and one of theirs at mine. And then we all moved in together. The arrangement felt uncomfortable, if only because no one else's parents were doing anything like it. One day, as I lay reading on my bed, the girls from the other family came downstairs with moving boxes in their arms. That night, the adults erected a screen to separate the dining room from the living room. In place of our dark varnished table and the buffet with its china and silver appeared a king-size bed. Downstairs, the salt-and-pepper sofa and the desk where my father tracked investments gave way to bunk beds for two of the girls. Over the next few days, my brother and I learned to grab for our bathrobes when our new sisters slipped through our room on the way to the toilet in the morning. They learned to duck behind closet doors when we trespassed through their bedroom on our way upstairs.

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