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A few recent happenings have had me thinking about, and especially valuing, my multiple families.

Oh, my parents are both alive, and I have a younger brother. This is not an “I roamed from foster home to foster home” kind of story. Instead, it’s the story of a loved girl who grew into a loved woman, one who values, and feels impossibly lucky for, all the important people in her life.

A week and a half ago, I went to dinner with Jeff, his brother Steve and his parents for his mom’s birthday. We sat on the patio of a Mexican restaurant and laughed at the ridiculously enormous margarita Steve ordered (it was the “medium” size and 30+ ounces). Then we playfully teased their mom about how, every time we go to a Mexican restaurant, she can never remember what her favorite thing is, and when the server brings her meal out, it’s utterly foreign to her. (Jeff has started a list of Foods Mom Likes/Hates on his iPhone.)

When the waitress complimented Char on her necklace and asked where she got it, Char pointed to me and said I’d made it. I told the waitress, “It was for her birthday today!”

And I immediately regretted it. And I apologized profusely after the waitress left.

“I don’t mind that you told her!” Char told me.

Well, I pointed out, they will probably bring out a giant sombrero and clap at you and sing happy birthday to you. Her eyes got wide: “You’re kidding!!!”

And, 45 minutes later, the sombrero, a half a dozen employees, and a shot of Rumple Minze came out.

And Char is nothing if not a trooper.

charOn the walk back out to our car, Steve and Char were walking arm in arm, and I commented on their matching shirts. Jeff turned around to get in on the follow-the-yellow-brick-road walk they were mimicking, and Steve held out his arm for me to add to the chain too. My father-in-law stopped to take a few photos with his phone as we laughed. We weren’t embarrassed for feeling silly. We were just enjoying one another’s company.

The moment ended quickly, but it stuck with me. Because throughout my life, I have been something of a family collector. It started in about the sixth grade with two different families. One, I started babysitting for when I was 11 or 12 (I’ve mentioned them on Curious Jac before). By sophomore year of college, I was going on family vacations to Florida with them, an extra set of eyes for four kids ranging in age from 1 to 9. By senior year, I was staying the night so Mom and Dad could have an overnight trip. By college, I was forming true friendship with these “kids.” The family set up the centerpieces at our wedding. One kid was a bridesmaid. Another is visiting for the weekend in September. The youngest will be a senior in high school this year, and it will be the fourth and final graduation party I help the mama with. The oldest is 24 and still calls to thank me for Christmas gifts. I know the code to their garage and, if I visit and arrive before anyone gets home, I let myself in.

When we took family photos after the wedding ceremony, there were instructions for everyone to go start drinking — except extended family members and these guys.

My second “second family” also was introduced around sixth grade, when I met my best friend Stephanie. Throughout junior high and high school, Stephanie’s house was a place where I felt comfortable. Her family loved games, and they taught me the glory of Rummikub. They went out to eat a lot, and I was often a fourth kid, tagging along. I went to Stephanie’s grandparents’ lake house in Michigan more than once. Her little brother developed that adorable kind of crush tailor-made for his big sister’s best friend.

Similarly, Stephanie was at our house all the time. She was comfortable opening the pantry to see what cereal would be best for breakfast, and she knew as well as we did the joy in finding an unopened box of Lucky Charms. (You never ate Lucky Charms at my house if they were opened, because that meant my brother had picked out every single marshmallow, leaving nothing but crappy cereal behind.)

This past weekend, I had an impromptu vacation at Stephanie’s parents’ lake house. They bought it, Stephanie told me, because they wanted a fun place for their friends and family to visit. I apologized, more than once, for crashing their party, but I knew deep down I was welcome. It was my third visit and, when I arrived, both of her parents told me separately to come back any time, and to bring the husband next time.

Saturday, it rained most of the day, which kind of depleted the list of things-to-do at a lake house. For at least an hour, Steph and I curled up on the sectional couch, reading. She cried at her book (“The Art of Racing in the Rain”) while I laughed at mine (“The Year of Living Biblically”), and we occasionally looked up to watch the rain fall on the lake, which is one of nature’s beautiful performances. Each raindrop that hits the surface of the water created a little white pop, so the lake looked alive, moving and breathing.

I played “Cards Against Humanity” for the first time in my life. A word of warning: If you are going to play this perverted game (a politically incorrect version of “Apples to Apples,” with cards like “pulling out,” “black people” and “two midgets shitting in a bucket) with your best friend, her husband AND HER PARENTS, do not get tipsy. Granted, her folks are the kind of folks to love this kind of game, but did I need to help Stephanie define a dental dam for her mom? Did I really?

I couldn't help but snap a pic of the sky as I left on Saturday. This sky rivals a tropical beach one, no?

I couldn’t help but snap a pic of the sky as I left on Sunday. This sky rivals a tropical beach one, no?

Steph's son saw Grandpa do this with a flashlight a few days prior, they told me. He can be a shy boy, and this photo of utter glee makes my guts happy.

Steph’s son saw Grandpa do this with a flashlight a few days prior, they told me. He can be a shy boy, and this photo of utter glee makes my guts happy.

So here I am, 30 years old, with an amazing family. I adore my parents. My brother rocks. But we don’t have any semblance of that “typical family relationship.” We’ve never been on a family vacation because my brother can’t travel. What would we do if he were to have a tantrum on an airplane? Lord, they’d probably think he was a terrorist, and “No, he’s just autistic” probably wouldn’t help matters as he walked around the plane, shoving strangers. He’s great on road trips, but after a day, it’s time to go home. The three of them piling in the car to visit me a state away is about the vacationiest thing we’ve ever done together.

As such, I value the times when they travel to see more than I can explain. I’ve lived in my current hometown five years, and they’ve only been three times. Two of those have been in the last year, since I’ve moved in with Jeff. I think having an actual house with multiple rooms is helpful for Joey. It’s more like home (versus the one-bedroom apartment I used to live in), and he can leave the room if he’s being over-stimulated.

This is all to say: I never realized growing up that things at home weren’t the same, because mine is nothing if not an incredibly loving family. We don’t often whine about our situation, because we don’t know anything else, and it is our normal.

And yes, there I was, still experiencing those “typical” family gatherings. I was just doing it with other families.

That’s a lot of love that surrounded me.