Here's a family holiday photograph suitable for framing:
Two exuberant women, Samara Tilkens Postuma, 25, and Lori Hansen, 31, smile at the camera from a big, round kitchen table. A Christmas tree sparkles behind them as 61/2-year-old Maddy, missing a tooth and sporting a bright red chef's hat, proudly displays proof of their busy morning together: peanut butter kisses, sugar cookies, fudge.
So? Lots of friends bake Christmas cookies with their kids. But these two women aren't just friends. Samara is married to Jeff Postuma, 34, director of parenting programs for Perspectives Family Center in St. Louis Park. Lori is divorced from him.
A few years ago, neither woman had much appetite for dual baking. But time healed a lot of hurt. Samara got over her early awkwardness when it was time to drop off the kids at Lori's. Lori got past feeling she was being "replaced." Lori remarried and the families were constantly drawn together because of the kids. (Aside from Maddy, Lori and Jeff also have an 8-year-old son, Tyler. Jeff and Samara have 19-month-old Henry.)
Lori and Samara discovered they actually liked each other and had shared values, but that wasn't the reason for their remarkable mutual outreach.
"The kids have been so much better off," said Lori, an emergency room nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center. "They like to see us all getting along, talking and having fun. Sometimes you just have to put some feelings aside."
Jeff agrees. He says their blending, particularly at holidays and birthdays, is "almost a taboo" to many people observing them. "But we need to say, 'This is reality.' If we want our kids to be OK, we need to step up to the plate as adults and get past ourselves. We've all worked hard at trying to do this."
The holidays are stressful enough for "intact" families faced with everything from where to spend Christmas to how to curb grandparent spending. Divorce can add additional layers of complexity and, often, sorrow for families whose treasured traditions are over.
But a few boldly blended families are working hard to create new traditions that respect what was and what is. Last Sunday, for example, the Postuma-Hansens went to Buffalo Covenant Church where Maddy and Tyler sang in the Christmas musical. Then everyone went to Samara and Jeff's house for cookies, caramel rolls and cocoa.
Across town at Calvary Lutheran Church in Golden Valley, Julie and Jim Straw; their 15-year-old son, Andy; Jim's ex-wife, Robin; Jim and Robin's two grown daughters, Krystl and Kim, and Robin's husband, Dave Fritz, will continue their 16-year tradition of exchanging gifts and attending Christmas services together.
After Jim's eight-year-marriage ended and he married Julie 19 years ago, Robin left her church and joined Jim and Julie at Calvary, to provide "consistency" for the girls. She and Julie also taught Sunday school together. More on that holiday miracle in a minute.
No road map
Samara and Jeff Postuma met, in perfect 21st-century fashion, in a Starbucks. His divorce, after a six-year marriage, was fresh. She was only 20. "I liked chatting with him, being with him, but once I found out he was divorced with kids I thought, 'Oh, well. This might not be such a great thing.'''
Meeting Lori was hard. "I would get stomachaches before we'd get together," Samara said. "I didn't want to say or do anything wrong. I didn't want to step on her toes. Nobody ever tells you, 'This is how you deal with the ex-spouse.' We had to figure out our places, our roles."
Samara and Jeff were married four years ago but it took about two more years for everyone to get comfortable. Lori married Gregg Hansen, who has older children, two years ago. Last Easter, Lori invited Samara and baby Henry over to decorate eggs; Samara returned the invitation for cookie-baking that Christmas.
Lori said the biggest challenge for her "is separating my relationship with Samara from my relationship with Jeff. If [Jeff and I] were in an argument about something, it was like she and I were taking steps backwards. I finally realized that our relationship is completely separate. She's not a buffer. I truly have gotten to know her as a friend."
While the women drive the social schedules, the men have found companionship, too, in their fashion. Jeff Postuma is just getting to know his former wife's husband, Gregg, but "I like him," Jeff said. "From the first time I met him, I thought he was a nice guy. I could see hanging out with him. We're moving toward that."
Similarly, Jim Straw, 49, said that, while he and Dave "don't, like, get together ... he and I spend a lot of time talking. I never feel uncomfortable around Dave."
'How would I feel?'
Like Lori and Samara, Julie remembers feeling nervous around Robin at first. "She had all sorts of reasons to not like me," Julie said. "She saw Jim getting on [with his life]. How would I feel?"
Robin remembers it being "really hard," too. "There were times when [Jim and Julie] would pick up the girls and I'd just feel defeated and lonely," said Robin, 53, a clinic manager for Allina and Robbinsdale resident. "But, wanting the best family life for the girls was just stronger."
Their bond was the girls, now 26 and 23. "I think that she saw that I cared for her girls deeply," Julie said. "When the girls were little, Robin and I talked almost every day." They slowly started doing things together that didn't involve the girls, such as going to a health club together. And teaching Sunday school. Julie tells a funny story about how they surprised a lot of church members when their respective family photos in the church directory featured the same kids.
But it took a while to want to party together. Christmas wasn't the first foray. Birthdays were. "Robin would have her birthday celebration [for one of the girls], then grandparents would have another, and then we'd have another," said Julie, a vice president at Inscape Publishing in Minneapolis. "Honestly, we were all going nuts. We said, 'This is ridiculous and why don't we all just get together?'"
To this day, they celebrate birthdays together. When Krystl got married a few months ago, Julie and Robin went dress shopping together, "and had a blast," Julie said.
They don't do as much together now that the girls are grown, but everyone seems glad they made the effort for so many years. At her recent wedding to Curt Adams, Krystl toasted her four parents, "for everything that they do, basically getting along through all these years."
On the other end of the spectrum, Lori and Samara are just gearing up. They both took Maddy to get her ears pierced, and the families go ice skating and to football games together and celebrate the kids' accomplishments with special dinners.
Lori said getting to that place just takes time, "and realizing what really is important."
Julie agrees. "In every story, there is probably something that someone could feel angry, hurt or deceived about. It takes a lot of forward-looking thinking to say, 'I'm going to leave that behind. I'm going to box it up and leave it behind.' For us, it was really always about the kids. We tried to put those kids first. We knew that if we did that, our relationships would be stronger."
Gail Rosenblum 612-673-7350