The making of families

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

Tony Berg/Newscom/File
A Polynesian woman and children in Micronesia.

When I first arrived as an independent volunteer in Chuuk, I didn't know anyone. It was a small island, by my estimation about the circumference of a potted plant, so my loneliness seemed unwarranted. Yet here I was, drowning in heat and standing with my luggage, staring out over a hill that spilled over into the wide-mouthed lagoon below, feeling like the last woman in the world.

I had come here to teach and to somehow put my anthropology degree to use. Although I was surrounded by people, I felt like an outsider, and not just because I was foreign. Homesickness was pulsating through my body, and I challenged myself to keep busy so as not to let it eat me alive. Where was my family? About 10,000 miles away, on the other side of the globe.

I figured I would have some company. Xavier high school is a boarding school that houses students from all over the region of Micronesia. Boys live on campus and girls live in the villages below with host families. As difficult as it was for me to leave my family, I couldn't imagine the struggle for some of these students, especially the ones from more remote islands who had never been away from home. I knew immediately we would have some common ground. We would be strangers together, we would miss our families together, and together we would keep each other company.

I tried as best I could to learn their names quickly so we could be more familiar with each other, but I learned that names were not always needed. A week into teaching, I noticed a strange phenomenon in my classroom: students calling each other as though they were family – mommy, daddy, sister, grandma. They'd write it on notes to each other, and leave messages on the blackboard before class: "Juz droppin' a msg to my mama Lyz!" "Luv ya daughter! MUAH!"

As an English and literature teacher, this made me cringe, but at the same time, it piqued my anthropological interests.

During morning assemblies, students would profess their love for their dense and ever-growing lineages, be it for birthdays, good luck wishes, or just to say "hello" or "can you please return my skirt?" It was impossible to remember who was whose "child" or "aunt" or "uncle"; their imagined families were so complex it was hard to believe they weren't making them up as they went along.

About two weeks into the quarter, class monitors were chosen who would act as guidance counselors for their given grades. The sophomore class chose a new volunteer, named James. Subsequently, he became the "daddy" for the entire class and though it could be jarring, it was not unusual for me to hear a young 10th-grade girl call out, "Daddyyyy! I need to use the bathroom!!!" in the middle of one of my lectures a few classrooms away. Because James and I were friends, and high-schoolers are alike all over, it didn't take long for them to concoct the story that the two of us were married. Congratulations; I was a mom.

"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.

"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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