A Family Reunion that Stretches and Strengthens Ties

Here's a question that a lot of people are asking, as divorce and remarriage break and blend families: What do you call your half-sister's mother's children from her second marriage? Commentator Heather King recently went to a big reunion where she met people she is barely related to via divorce. She was unsure about meeting them — but at the end of the weekend, she decided that they are all family.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Here's a question as divorce and remarriage break and blend families. What do you call your half-sister's mother's children from her second marriage? Recently, commentator Heather King figured out the answer, at least for herself. She says you call them family.

Ms. HEATHER KING: My half-sister Jean is seven years older, and growing up together we were never quite as close as I think we both might have hoped. Recently she called from her home in Maine with terrible news. She had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. I got the phone line going to my other six siblings - some in the West Coast, some in the East Coast, one in Bangkok.

A short time later, we all received an invitation in the mail - please join us for a heartfelt reunion and celebration of our much-loved Jean at her home in Augusta, it read. I couldn't RSVP my acceptance fast enough. I wanted to support Jean, of course. I looked forward to seeing my mother and other siblings.

But what truly intrigued me was that our late father's first wife, Marjorie, Jean's real mother, would be there. The rest of us had never met her. Driving north on the Maine Turnpike that Saturday morning, I thought, what if she doesn't like us? What if it upsets my position in the family? I was the oldest of the kids my parents had had together, and I'd never realized how territorial that made me feel, how little I'd ever wanted to picture my father with a life before me.

Apparently, Marjorie's three grown kids from her second marriage would be there as well. I didn't even know their names. What if they're stuffed shirts, I thought. But as soon as we got there, I knew it was going to be okay. Linda was passing around a scrapbook detailing all kinds of fascinating family dirt, and Richard, it turned out, lived in Japan and had brought a whole suitcase full of colorful kimonos to hand out as party favors to the guests.

Everyone was wandering around the backyard in kimonos that this guy who, up until now, I'd barely known existed, had bought in Nagoya for 10 yen, about 60 cents apiece.

In a way it set a tone for the whole party. It was weird going up and introducing myself to Marjorie, thinking if my father had stayed married to you I'd never have been born. It was stranger still to glance over an hour later and seen my own mother sitting placidly beside her.

But most surprising of all was Marjorie herself. Not standoffish or lukewarm like I'd expected, but a 78-year-old dynamo cracking wise from her folding chair. Just seeing this other part of Jean invested her with a whole new weight. Holding court from the head of the table that night, she drew us close with her family stories - stories I, for one, had never heard about my father.

The afternoon they'd snuck off and gotten married by a justice of the peace. He'd been 23 - Marjorie, a 14-year-old high school student. Didn't you put the ring on a ribbon around your neck, ma, Jean asked. Yeah, Marjorie chuckled, then hid it under my sweater and got home in time for curfew.

That night 22 people slept at Jean's. It was incredible to be staying up until all hours with the other half of her family - not blood relatives to us, but so easygoing, funny and with such quirky personal histories they might as well have been.

It was the type of night where you brushed your teeth, then decided you were still hungry, got up, and rummaged around for a snack with someone you'd met mere hours before but who already felt like kin.

As we headed back the next afternoon, the woods along the Maine Turnpike were awash with scarlet and gold. I'd been nervous about who these people would be to me. Instead, I'd felt as if I'd discovered a whole new world. I'd been afraid I'd be saying goodbye to Jean. Instead, I felt as if I'd finally truly met her.

It had taken 54 years. But at last, I reflected, smoothing my kimono, we'd had a real family reunion.

BLOCK: Heather King lives in Los Angeles.

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