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July 23, 2013

BEAM: The half-life of a non-nuclear family

NEW ALBANY — Although I met my brother only a few times, there’s something reassuringly familiar about seeing his photograph.

Just recently, my former sister-in-law posted a picture on Facebook. In it, Steve is young and handsome, and holding my niece, who was just then a baby. Wisps of dark brown hair frame his face, accentuating a subtle, kind smile. It’s the kind of photo that draws you in and makes you wish you’d been there for the eruption of the flash.

But I wasn’t. Across the river from my brother’s growing brood, my childhood continued uninterrupted. Ten-year-olds don’t understand the intricacies of blended families, especially when your daddy, the only real link between the two of you, was no longer around. Out of sight, out of mind the saying goes. And unfortunately, it can apply to kin just as it can anyone else.

To call Steve my brother is somewhat deceiving. In all honesty, we share a father but not a mother. Early on, I learned this was labeled as a half.

Half always sounded like a derogatory term to me — something you’d pour into your coffee to make it drinkable or the condition of that mug when it’s mostly empty. Wits and lives are halved. Not people. This isn’t a magic show.

Yet in my lifetime, the makeup of the American family unit has undergone a drastic change. Higher rates of divorce and remarriage — plus an increased number of women having children out of wedlock — have contributed to the rise of the half- and step-sibling.

Between 1980 and 1990, households that included either type of these relationships rose by 21.4 percent, according to a 1994 Statistical Abstract of the United States. A 2011 Pew survey found that at least 30 percent of all adults in America have a step- or half-sibling. Topping the charts, a whopping 44 percent of 18 to 29 year olds in the study have the same.

Back in the early 1980s, things were different. Half siblings didn’t grow on trees like they do today. For a child that wanted to be part of the norm, certain stories were invented. Not lies exactly; but not the truth either.

Since no one, not even me, ever saw my siblings, I became an only child. No one else needed to know about our dysfunctional family tree, with the offshoot limbs and splintered roots. My remarried mother and I had different last names for a perfectly sound reason; the witness protection guys assigned it.

The insulation from my half-siblings did have its consequences, one of which is pretty simple. I never really got to know the other half of family. In youth, you don’t care as much about this. Fewer siblings meant fewer fights and more attention. Only later do you realize that something is missing. Relating to these extended relations might help you to discover a deeper, hidden part of your soul that nurture left alone and let that dreaded nature persist.

For me, I’ve had these brief chances to meet my brothers and sisters in the past. I didn’t always take them. Altogether, there are five of us siblings, we think. Rumors have suggested there might even be one or two more.

Even the ones we do know of aren’t really known. Adoption claimed the identity of an older sister. Another sibling came out of wedlock so, while I’ve spoken to her on the phone once, I can’t seem to remember her last name and have lost her contact information. Even ships with similar cargo can pass silently through the night, I suppose.

Now, I’ve always been aware of my two big brothers. Being the baby gave me that luxury. As children, the Green Tree roller skating rank offered us some common ground on which to wobble. After those few times, we didn’t talk for more than 15 years. Still, even today, my brother Jeff and I chat on the phone only about once a year.

Steve will remain an unknown. In 2004, a fall down the stairs onto a concrete floor took his life too soon. But his children carry on his memory. In their photos, their eyes mimic their father’s. And if I look real close, maybe just maybe, I’ll see a reflection of my own upturned lips in their half-smiles as well.

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at hoosiermandyblog@gmail.com

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