I am not related to my brothers and sisters. I know that seems impossible, but technically it’s true. You see, officially I’m an only child. It’s just my parents and I—except it’s not. While I was growing up, we hosted exchange students. I have a “brother” and “sisters” in Japan, Uruguay, Denmark, and Greece, all of whom lived with us for a year, and all of whom we keep in touch with. In March I’m going to have a little Danish niece or nephew, and I couldn’t be more excited. I love them all, and to me, they’re family.
Although distance keeps my host-siblings from being a daily presence in my life, I’m never alone. Not really. I also have a “second family.” At least that’s what I call them. In reality, they’re just close family friends who unofficially adopted me into their immediate family when I was quite young. This second family comes with three younger brothers and a younger sister, all of whom I grew up with. My brother would never admit this, but even though the five of us bicker, insult each other, and occasionally come to knock-down, drag-out wrestling matches over who gets the remote, we really do love each other, and we all know it.
I’ve always had a key to my second family’s house, so I grew up coming and going as I pleased. One morning last summer, I decided to let myself in around breakfast time. As I sat in the kitchen munching on toast and reading the newspaper, my nine-year-old brother Evan crept up behind me. “Whatchya doin’?” he asked in classic Evan style.
“Not much,” I replied as I turned to face him. “Just reading.” A slow grin spread across my face as I absorbed the sight of him. His disheveled morning hair flopped in around in every conceivable direction, putting the perfect cap on his disheveled morning look. It was clear he had just woken up. “Ev,” I asked, “do you know that your shirt is on backwards?”
“It is?” he asked, clutching at his collar. He pulled the tan fabric away from his chest to glance at the tag. “I knew something felt funny about my clothes today!” he cried. I shook my head in amusement as I held back my laughter.
“Evan,” I said as he wriggled his sleeves off and rotated the shirt around his body, “I love you, but you’re such an idiot.” He giggled, a clear indication that he understood that I had been speaking Siblingese, in which petty insults serve as nothing more than thinly-veiled terms of endearment.
“I know I’m an idiot,” he said cheerfully, “but I’m your idiot.” He looked up at me mischievously.
“Yes,” I laughed, “you’re my idiot.”
“And you’re mine!” he called over his shoulder as he hopped down the stairs. I knew he was just joking, but he had still given me one of the biggest compliments of my life.
As I sat there with my cold toast, I couldn’t help but think about what Evan had said. We, along with the rest of our family members, belong to each other. No, we’re not biologically or legally related, and no, we don’t technically have the same parents. We didn’t technically grow up living in the same house, and we don’t have the same last name. But I don’t think those things define a family. Not really. The fact of the matter is, very few of the people I consider to be my family fit into any of those categories. They have many different last names, genetic compositions, and even native languages. I see some of them almost every day, but others I only see every few years. Many people would say that we’re not a family, but I don’t believe that. I believe that a family is a group of people who belong to each other. My family is the people I claim, and who claim me, even if it’s just by saying “yes, she’s my idiot.”