I stood in the driveway with my mother and stepfather and looked at the car my stepfather had chosen for me. It was a 1979 Fiat Strada, a four-door hatchback already seven years old at that time. For most of my life, my family had been working class so I never expected a car for my 16th birthday and I took nothing for granted. But I was no saint. I stared at the car with its peeling paint, torn seats, and wires protruding from a hole in the dash where the radio should have been and said, "It's ugly and it's a stick." My stepfather put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Do you trust me?" I leaned into his body -- all 6 foot 6 and 250 pounds of it -- and said, "Of course." He pulled me closer, "Then this is the one."
When I saw the car a few weeks later, it looked like new. He had a friend who repainted it and my mother knew someone that repaired the seats. My grandmother had paid for a new radio which my stepfather installed. He had polished the dashboard so that it was shiny black rather than the dull, sun-bleached gray it had been. I fell in love with it on the spot but I still didn't know how to drive a stick and said as much. My stepfather smiled proudly and said, "I'll teach you. Don't worry."
A few days later, he drove my little Fiat to an industrial area outside Kansas City, Kansas, where there was a long, straight road without traffic or lights. We traded places and I slid into the seat, pulling it way up from where he'd had it, and buckled my seat belt. I looked to him and he nodded, "Put it in neutral and turn the key." I did and for the first 20 minutes or so we lurched forward on that long empty road and I became frustrated and then angry and then despondent when it didn't come easily. At one point, I slammed my hands on the steering wheel and yelled, "I can't do this! I need an automatic!" He remained absolutely calm and kept his voice quiet and even, "You can do this." And, of course, he was right. When I finally managed to drive up and down the road without killing the car once, he looked at me with pride and said, "Take us home."
He came into my life when I was eight years old and he had kids from a previous marriage but I never once felt like I wasn't his daughter. He claimed me from the moment he stepped into our lives. He was a solid place to land during the angst of my teenage years. After I came out, though we never spoke in specifics, he never faltered in showing his love for me and was kind and welcoming to my girlfriends. He helped us strip wallpaper and paint and install glass-block windows when my partner and I bought our first house. He stood beside my mother when my partner and I exchanged vows for the first time and I still remember the feel of his strong arms around me that night as the music swirled around us in celebration. I can still picture how tiny our first-born baby looked in his giant, calloused hands and I was by his side when he took his last breath on the same day that baby turned five.
He loved through acts of service and taught me how to do so many things in our years together. My mother always said that blood was thicker than water but my stepfather taught me that we can choose family, that claiming and being claimed is powerful. I may not remember how to put in a glass block window but that lesson will last forever. When I look at my life and the people in it -- my family by blood, my chosen family and the family I've created with my partner -- I am grateful because I know what it feels like to be claimed. I knew at eight and I remember it now.
PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH