During a time when we are all stuck at home, family is more important than ever, which got me thinking about how my own family has grown and changed. When I was younger, in elementary school, students used to have to draw pictures of their families.
Everyone around me would take out their crayons and draw a mommy and a daddy, maybe a brother or sister, and sometimes a dog and cat. I wouldn’t draw anything, even though I wanted to. It was the same choice every time: to tell the truth, or to tell the old truth.
I always picked the latter.
My parents divorced when I was seven
Mommy, daddy, sister, puppy. My teachers would smile and give me a shiny sticker. But what they didn’t know was that my picture was a lie. My puppy had died, and my old life in that picture was gone. The story that my drawing didn’t tell was that my parents had gotten divorced when I was seven. Those elementary school drawings were maps of my denial, my refusal to accept that my parents didn’t live together anymore.
It took a long time, seven years, and me turning 14, but now I no longer draw that first picture or tell that untrue story.
The truth is, I have a mom, a dad, and a sister, but I also have step-parents and step-brothers. At first, I thought that the hyphen discounted the new part of my family. Instead of a hyphen, I thought it was a minus sign: lesser brothers, lesser parents.
Instead of accepting my step-parents and siblings, I ignored them
Instead of accepting the new people in my life, I pretended they weren’t there, using step as my shield. I used step, as a step back, a step away, a step apart. Step was my distance from the fact that the life I loved and used to have was over.
I used step as distance to protect myself until my mom and stepdad’s wedding. My sister, step-brothers, and I were nine; my oldest step-brother was eleven. I stood at the chuppah with my new family in tears. Underneath a canopy of fresh spring flowers in New York City, I bitterly looked out on the crowd of friends and family.
I recognized some, my cousins and grandparents, but I didn’t know at least half of the guests at our rooftop wedding. I thought back to earlier in the day when my stepdad’s parents, brother, cousins, nephews, and nieces wrapped their arms around me and said Mazel Tov!, smiling and excited.
They knew nothing about me except my name. I was part of their family now, which mattered to them. That kind of unconditional love confused me as a child used to movies and TV shows where nobody had a step-anything.
As bewildered and sad as I was, I tried to smile as my Pop Pop, the officiant, talked about how a wedding celebrates life and love. To me, it felt like a funeral for my old life. The life and love that was being celebrated were only there because the life and love from my past were gone.
To me, love had to come from somewhere. There wasn’t an endless amount of it, so if you loved someone new, you were taking love away from another person. A new family to love and accept would take love away from my old family, which I didn’t like.
The wedding was the first step toward acceptance
The wedding was the biggest first step, from the past to the present. It was a step I didn’t want to take because it meant I couldn’t deny that my parents were NOT getting back together. As he talked, Pop Pop said something that made me realize the truth about step, though. He told my sister, step-brothers, and me to protect each other and always be there for one another, but he didn’t use the word step or a hyphen. He just told us that siblings should love each other, no matter what.
The fact that we weren’t siblings didn’t matter to Pop Pop. And now it doesn’t matter to me either. I know that a hyphen or a step doesn’t matter as much as love, and I know that what I thought I lost at my mom’s wedding is so little compared to what I gained. Having new people to love in your life doesn’t mean taking love from someone else. There isn’t a finite amount of love; you can’t run out of it. New love doesn’t come from the destruction of old love. It is something all its own. Having a new family doesn’t mean I can’t still love my old one. It just means I have even more love surrounding me.
New love means that I can stop using a hyphen to separate and, instead, start using it to connect.
I’ve created a new meaning for the steps and hyphens in my life. Step doesn’t mean stepping back, away, or apart. Step means stepping up. Instead of a hyphen making something less, it can make something more. Now hyphens are a bridge between my new family and me, not a barrier, especially when we aren’t all under the same roof. As soon as the pandemic gets a little better, I can’t wait for us all to be together again. That will be a step in the right direction.
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Sophie Rane Possick is 14 years old and lives in Rye Brook, NY. When’s she’s not competing in Destination Imagination, Sophie loves drawing, painting, her dog Ruby, and a good book.