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Untangling our family tree Add to ...

In kindergarten, my step-grandchild Ellen was given the project of drawing her family tree. It was a complicated creation, with many tentacles sprouting from the branches in an attempt to connect each person to the right lineage. It may have been the experience of trying to explain her eclectic extended family that heightened her quest to sort us all out.

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Our clan is a 21st-century version of the Brady Bunch, with 11 “grandmunchkins” to be doted upon. As a toddler, Ellen always drew her family with a mother, a father, siblings and two sets of grandparents. Then reality collided with tradition. While her family does include Mom, Dad and two siblings, it gets complicated after that. There are two grandpas and two step-grandmas (I'm one); plus Nanna, who was formerly married to my husband; and Nanna's husband, step-Poppa.

The first discussion about my status occurred about a year after the family tree assignment, when Ellen was 5. As we drove to our house, she broke our comfortable silence with, “Grandma, did you know that Cinderella had a stepmother?” Thinking that chatting about the fairy tale would keep her amused, I said, “I love the Cinderella story.”

“Did you know that Cinderella's stepmother was very mean to her?” she continued. Yes, I said, launching into an account of how the wicked stepmother foiled Cinderella's grand plan to go to the ball.

“Did you know that my mommy has a stepmother?” Ellen went on. I nodded. “My mommy's stepmother isn't mean; she takes Mommy to lunch and shopping. When I grow up I want a stepmommy just like hers.”

“That's nice, sweetie,” I said, breathing a quiet sigh of relief. I had passed the stepmother test. I marvelled at how her little mind was engaged in forward thinking; her thought process was to ensure a rosy future of lunches and gifts for her.

A couple of years later, a sleepover at our house with seven-year-old Ellen and her younger siblings rekindled her goal of making sense of the family. A Sunday morning ritual is making pancakes with Grandpa. As Ellen scooped pancake mix into the skillet she said to me, “Grandma, did you know that Grandpa was married to Nanna?”

Hesitantly I answered, “Yes.”

“But now Nanna is married to Poppa,” she continued.

“That's right, sweetheart, and I'm married to Grandpa,” I said with a tone meant to signal the end of the conversation.

But she doggedly continued with her train of thought. “Did you have another husband before Grandpa?” she asked. This conversation was leading into murky waters, but I nodded yes.

So what happened to him, she wanted to know.

How does one explain to a young child how a marriage can deteriorate to such unhappiness that divorce becomes the only solution? My recollection is that I stumbled through a very weak account of how my ex-husband and I no longer enjoyed each other's company and then decided not to live together.

“So you dumped him, Grandma,” she said, with her brother and sister looking very interested in my response.

Not wanting to be viewed as a dumper by my grandchildren, I hugged Ellen and said, “Of course not dear, it's just too hard to explain.”

“Please don't dump Grandpa,” she said, “because he makes great pancakes!”

I promised them solemnly that I would not dump Grandpa.

When Ellen was 9, I was sitting in the back seat of a minivan on a trip to a family gathering, trying to keep her and her brother occupied so that Mom, Dad and Grandpa could listen to tunes and have a conversation without having to constantly answer the question, “Are we there yet?”

Ellen snuggled close to me and said, “Grandma, would you help with a secret?” I replied that I'd love to, but needed to know more about this secret before I said yes.

“Would you help me get Nanna and Grandpa back together again? I want you to help me plan the wedding,” she said. “You and I can get together at your house, when Grandpa isn't there, and make the invitations and decorations. It will be so much fun. We'll invite everyone! What do you think about Kraft Dinner for the meal? Everyone loves Kraft Dinner.”

She then divulged the pièce de résistance. “You can take Nanna out to help her buy her wedding dress. But Grandma, don't tell Grandpa. Let's make this wedding a surprise for him.”

My mouth pursed tightly to hold back the welling tears and my hands clenched so that I wouldn't laugh, I looked into her hopeful eyes. “Sounds like you have it all planned, Ellen,” I stammered. “Let me think on it and get back to you.”

We pulled into a rest stop and her mind quickly shifted to the machines where the giant gumballs come out. We continued our trip and she never brought up her secret plan again. I was given the honoured role of confidante in a plan that would later throw everyone into hysterics in its re-telling, particularly Grandpa and Nanna.

Ellen is now a teenager and knows that her family isn't all that strange. To my relief, she sees me as part of her support system as she navigates the tumultuous teenage years. She loves hearing these stories, as they are part of the fabric that binds our hodgepodge family together.

And I threaten her often that I look forward to sharing them, embellished through the years, at her wedding.

Vicky Smith lives in London, Ont.

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