One exceptionally cloudy June morning, my mother and I found ourselves stomach-deep in icy Minnesota lake water, toiling under the weight of a 40-foot-long, currently teetering lake dock that belonged on our family’s lake rental property.
This biyearly ritual of rolling the dock into the water in the spring and out of the water in the fall generally proceeded quite smoothly, but this particular year, several of the more vital dock parts had simply disappeared, leaving my mother and me cold, wet and struggling to assemble makeshift supports that would prevent the dock from sinking into the sticky lake muck.
In a moment of self-reflection, my 13-year-old self, crouched under the weight of the dock’s beams, couldn’t help but wonder, “Why exactly am I spending my valuable summer hours being harvested by leeches and holding this socket wrench? I don’t even know how to use a socket wrench.”
The answer, I grudgingly reminded myself, was that when there are only two people in one family and when that family is engaged in a semi-impossible project, there is no fallback person to take over in the less-than-pleasant moments.
After another hour or so of failed fiddling, and with a growing numbness in the lower halves of our bodies, my mother seemed to finally recognize the futility of our physical sacrifices.
“I think we’re going to need to go into town to get a hydraulic jack,” she said as we trudged back out of the water. “We won’t be able to hold it up on our own.”
Family hasn’t always meant just the two of us — my mom and me — but for a long time now, it essentially has. And though she would hardly say as much, I know she’s always been a little ashamed of our two-person-ness — ashamed that she was not able to juggle her job and an endless number of chores, projects and bills as gracefully as she would have liked. Ashamed even more so that she could not give me the opportunity to have two parents all the time, that we would no longer have a traditional nuclear family.
But through her actions every day, my mother taught me that changes in a family structure do not diminish the experience of that family. She took on even more responsibility as a parent, showing me that I, also, could do and be more than the slightly spoiled and irreverent tween that I was.
We reshuffled the pieces of our lives until they fit together in a completely new, if slightly skewed, whole. I prepared dinner (to say I “cooked” is a stretch) and took care of our menagerie of pets and the yard, and she was in charge of all household finances and cleaning and planning home improvement projects.
Together, we learned to operate our ride-around lawn mower, hang blinds, strip and restain kitchen cabinets, deweed the lakebed and maintain a swimming pool without flooding the neighbor’s yard. Our system was sometimes rough, to be sure, but grew smoother over time, and soon we stubbornly refused to believe there was a project the two of us couldn’t tackle. Without really realizing it, our new familial roles made us capable of more than we had been capable of before.
Families are built differently today. The Game of Life’s tiny red and green and yellow cars with their pink and blue people simply aren’t sufficient for expressing what a modern family looks or, indeed, how that family shapes us. My own family, led by my indefatigably determined mother, taught me to be independent and persistent in ways that my younger self, indulged as I was by two present and able parents and two incomes, wouldn’t have imagined.
This isn’t to say that the traditional family — mother, father, two children and a dog — doesn’t impart valuable lessons to its members, because frequently, it does. When discussions, however, snake around to the subject of families headed by single parents or families that are otherwise nontraditional, they usually focus on these families’ brokenness, their imperfections. There’s little recognition of how the lessons taught in such families might be unique and maybe even impossible to reproduce in a “normal” family. But such lessons do exist. For my mom and me, the lesson was that, damn it, we could take on the world’s projects without a man.
And sometimes we couldn’t. Two hours and two Big Macs later we were back — jack in hand — to contemplating the sluggish grey water licking the crooked dock’s exposed metal bones.
“Do you think it’s gotten any warmer?” I asked.
“No,” she said, frowning. And then, “I think we should call someone.”
Part of being independent in this way, my mother taught me, is recognizing that there are some limitations to our abilities. It’s about being rational and calling in burly, 6-foot tall handymen who can set to rights in 10 minutes what you could not do in four hours. It’s about tempering independence with intelligence and recognizing that there’s no shame in finding a way to stay dry.