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The making of families

On an island in Micronesia, a foreigner discovers a unique way to tackle loneliness.

(Page 2 of 2)

"Mommy, can you help me with these test corrections?" asked one of my students, a short, bubbly girl named V-Ann, poking her head into my sweltering office, dimly lit except for a flickering flashlight and the last vestiges of sunset.

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"V-Ann, let me ask you a question – you already have a mom right? At home? Like, a real one?" I realized immediately how incoherent I must have sounded, but the curiosity was plaguing me.

V-Ann stared at me.

"I also hear you call Erika your mom, right?" I continued hesitantly, referring to another student.

V-Ann cocked her chubby head, considering me with her big, inquisitive eyes. The freckles around her dark nose receded as she backed away from the light.

"I just don't understand why you keep calling me 'Mom.' I'm not really your mom. I mean I don't mind it – but, is it like a game? I just don't really get it."

"Because Mr. James is our dad!" V-Ann said matter-of-factly, clearly thinking that this impenetrable logic would solve the confusion. When it didn't, she added, "Ms. Lydia, you can have more than one mom! I have like eight moms!"

I was still uncertain, but agreed with her anyway. In fact, I stopped questioning the sophomores altogether when they called me Mommy, and instead I decided to really delve into what the students called their "families." I watched how they interacted, and I asked them questions about their relationships, taking care not to doubt their validity. I learned that the parents looked after the children, who were usually younger, and kept them from being bullied. Spouses were not necessarily two students who were dating, but acted as scaffolding that held each other up through actual breakups, family problems, and academic issues. Brothers rivaled each other. Sisters braided hair. Everyone traded clothing; lent money; and shared books, glasses, and food.

These imagined families offered real life support systems for children in a culture where family is the most important aspect of their lives. They could not have their real families with them, so they shaped their own, and they had included me within them. I had often thought of them as made up and imaginary, but the more they called me "Mom," the more I felt a part of their created truth.

At the end of the school year, for extra credit, I had the sophomore class draw their family trees, and they were much more complicated, intricate, and dynamic than I could have ever anticipated. Complete with divorces, remarriages, and different families merged into one, they exemplified the intense depth and thoughtfulness of their creators. It was clear that these genealogies were the best cure for homesickness because they provided what was really needed: a new home in a different place. And when I saw my name scribbled in there, somewhere among other names, I knew that I fitted right in with the rest.

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