I’ve been sorting through tons of photos lately. Partially because I’m sick of having random boxes filled with pictures sitting around the apartment but mostly because I’m trying to put something together for my sister honoring our mom who passed away in 2011. I’ll be traveling with the kids to Pennsylvania to see my sister in less than two weeks so this is my one shot at getting her Christmas present to her in a timely manner.

As I’m sorting through my photos, I notice that I have a lot of varying piles. I imagine most people have piles labeled “childhood,” then, perhaps “high school” and “college.” Other categories might be “first dates, the wedding, birth of Junior.” But I have crazy piles. I have baby pictures, then the first splinter of pictures with mom versus pictures with dad. Then pictures of my new extended family with mom and pictures of my new extended family with dad. And all that comes with that. The one thing that stayed consistent was that I stayed in Southwest Licking School District from first grade through graduation. So, I knew all the same friends and acquaintances from 1974-1986 but my family changed more times than I can count. I tried tallying up my step-siblings at one point, I stopped counting at 20.

As I read through my prior posts, I notice that I talk a lot about my crazy family. I feel the need to clarify some things. My mother married when she was very young. She had my sister when she was 18. She divorced her first husband (who I know very little about) and raised my sister on her own. Then, a few years later, she met Dan. It was a whirlwind romance (he is a charming SOB) and they married within a month of meeting each other. His looming participation in Vietnam made them make some hasty decisions, like marrying quickly and creating a reason to keep him home from the war. That reason turned out to be a seven pound, redheaded troll-like character they named Sarah Danel Phillips. Me. Since my grandma’s name was Sarah, they called me by my middle name, “Danel,” which I always hated. It’s spelled wrong and nobody pronounces it correctly. And I wonder why they didn’t just call me “Dammit” like they really wanted to since I failed at keeping my father out of the war.

So, Dan went to Vietnam, got shot up a bunch and was sent back to his new wife, adopted daughter and newborn. It could never last. They divorced when I was four or five. I lived with my dad’s parents, Sarah and Jake, for a year while everyone went out to find new spouses. And that’s when shit got weird.

When I speak of my crazy family, I’m usually referring to my biological father’s side. With the exception of temporarily living with Jake and Sarah, I always lived with my mother as did my sister. We’re nearly seven years apart though, so we didn’t interact much. My mom remarried a man with four children. My dad remarried a woman with two children and then had a son when I was seven. So, I went from having a solitary sister, to having eight siblings. Some weird stuff happened with the new family I was living with but most of the weird stuff happened with my dad. He is not a bright man. He is not an affectionate man. And, since I had a new dad to care for me, he didn’t feel the need to be involved. It’s been a difficult thing to come to terms with.

My mom divorced the man with four children when I was 12. My dad’s marriage ended when my step-mom killed herself in 1987. My dad has remarried a few more times, which added to the step-sibling tally, but after my step-mom died I stopped having much interaction with my dad at all. I made it a point to maintain my relationship with my little brother because he had no one after his mom died. He was only 11 and I thought it was terribly unfair that my dad was now his sole support.

My mom, Patricia, was always my one and only mom. We didn’t always get along (it was downright combative at times, with both of us earning multiple purple hearts due to our inflicting so many injuries on one another.) My “dad” is Rob, the man who married my mother when I was 19. My sister, Cassi, has been there from the beginning of my redheaded-troll life and my brother, Scotty, deserves to have something other than what was given to him at birth.

We aren’t whole. We’re splinters. And I like that I can categorize so much of my life with wacky subsets like “second step-mother” or “step-sibling, twice removed.” My family tree isn’t one that is easily traced but what it comes down to is that biology has so very little to do with it. I complain a lot about my family, but, admittedly, it’s very rarely my “real family” that I’m complaining about. I miss my mom terribly. My sister is lovely. My step-father, despite never having any biological children of his own, actually understands how to love me like a daughter. And my brother needs the protective love of his older sister.

Love is where you can find it. Family is who you accept into your inner circle. And even though some of my splinters hurt a lot, I kinda like who I am because of all the craziness. It has made me a better mom. A better friend. Many have wondered why I would get a divorce after seeing what it can do to a family. But I know that if my parents had stayed together that it would have been disastrous. Maybe I didn’t make the right decisions. I admit that I made some mistakes. But when it comes down to it, my children know they are number one. They will never doubt my love for them because I learned at an early age how painful that feeling of doubt truly is.

Adversity makes us stronger. And my jacked-up family has given me a multitude of material that – if I were brave enough – would fuel my stand-up comedy career for many, many years.

Yes. I complain about my crazy family and dysfunctional childhood all the time. But, in all honestly, my core family is pretty darn awesome.

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