73: The Family Portrait

73: The Family Portrait

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens

The Family Portrait

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.

~Desmond Tutu

In my father’s house, in my old bedroom, is a dresser. The dresser belonged to my older sister before she moved away. Then I inherited it. The smooth brown surface is free of scratches and marks. All the handles and knobs are still attached. It looks brand new, but this deceptive piece of furniture has been the silent guardian of my most precious treasure for twelve years.

Hidden behind the dresser and covered in more than a decade of dust is a family portrait of my mother and father, my older sister and brother, and me. It’s a reminder of life before my parents divorced, when the five of us equaled a family.

I don’t have to brush away the dust to see that I am the only one really smiling in the picture. A precocious toddler, I may have been the only one who didn’t know at the time that my family was falling apart.

When I was four years old, my parents divorced. I didn’t understand what that meant. All that my innocent mind understood was that mother didn’t live with us anymore. The portrait remained on the living room wall and to me that signified that I still had a family. A few years later, to my dismay, my sister pulled the portrait down.

I spent the next several years struggling with the divorce. Our home became less and less like a “normal” home and I became envious of my friends who still had a mother and father who lived together. I sought the approval of my friends’ parents, hoping to be adopted into their loving clans. I longed for family meals and family vacations. I wanted someone to rub my back when I wasn’t feeling well.

My parents started dating other people and with each new woman my father brought home I felt utterly and hopelessly lost. Deep down inside I believed that my parents really did love each other and would get back together someday. I struggled to define what a family is. I felt like I was living with strangers because everyone was off doing their own thing and I was left alone. Home became a cold place where I didn’t want to be.

I don’t know where the portrait was stored, but when I was in seventh grade, my dad remarried and we moved into my stepmother’s house. While unpacking boxes, I found it and quickly hid it behind the dresser. It was my treasure — my reminder of a time when I had a complete family. I was afraid if my stepmother found it she would throw it away and my family would be lost forever.

That first Thanksgiving in my new home was when I realized I had found exactly what I thought I had lost when my sister took the portrait down — a family. My stepmother cooked all day and the house was filled with mouth-watering smells of turkey, stuffing, biscuits and pumpkin pie. It was cold outside, but the house was warm and cozy. Seven of us gathered around the dining room table and our chattering voices filled the room. For the first time in a long time, I was happy.

I realized that day that a family doesn’t have to live under the same roof. Even though my parents are divorced, they’re still my family. They still love me and I love them. The great thing about a family is how it can grow to include stepparents and stepsiblings. There never was another family portrait, but I don’t need a picture to remind me what a family is.

~Valerie D. Benko

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