Family & Education

A package deal that taught me so much

Being part of a step-family was a source of joy and wisdom for Claire Calman


When your family morphs into a step-family, it’s a package deal. While the grown-ups get to choose their new partner, the children acquire not just a step-parent but a whole new set of relatives — whether they like it or not.

My parents separated when I was just two, and four years later, my dad met Karen, a talented artist who was six foot tall with flaming red hair. She made copper-plate etchings, and when she moved in with my dad, the spare bedroom became her studio for etching. Laid out were shallow trays of turquoise-blue acid we were forbidden to touch — like treacherous swimming-pools.

Our ‘package deal’ included Karen’s two children from her first marriage, Ashley and Susanna. At first, they seemed like an entirely different species. They were tall, golden-haired, athletic, fearless, Aryan-looking — Elves to our Hobbits (we are short, dark, hairy).

They went skiing in Verbier every year with their dad. We went to Scotland every year with our mum — not to ski but to see our grandparents, play in their big suburban garden, eat ‘High Tea’, and ingest as much sugar as possible, in the form of Tunnock’s ‘Snowballs’, Scottish vanilla tablet, and my granny’s drop scones (Scotch pancakes).

They were at private boarding schools, with epic uniform lists (“grey gloves — for church”), innumerable rigid rules and alien vocabulary: ‘prep’ for homework, ‘a pash’ — short for passion, a same-sex crush. My step-sister’s uniform included red dungarees (which I lusted after) to be worn on Saturday morning for chores such as ‘mucking out’ one’s pony and/or guinea-pig. They were like Enid Blyton children — but in real life.

Once, Susanna gave us a tour of the school and many of the girls’ bedside nightstands were adorned with a single, framed photograph — of their pony. Clearly, our step-siblings inhabited a parallel universe. At that point I knew no-one who had even had a ride on a horse. The closest I had come was a seaside ride on a donkey one holiday.

We were welcomed into their extended family, and invited to join the annual gathering of Karen’s tribe at her uncle’s fruit farm. Up to 50 people converged to eat, drink, and harvest the crop of damsons. It was like a cross between a commune and a festival, with a host of relatives and barely relatives (like us) pitching tents in the grounds to camp. We ate outdoors on long trestle tables and, on the last night, joined in their legendary family version of full-blown charades, involving props, costumes and hilariously elaborate acted-out scenarios for each syllable.

I hadn’t experienced anything like this family before — they were very English in some ways but devoid of that chilly restraint that I often associate with the non-Jewish upper-middle classes. They were happily, unselfconsciously eccentric, talkative, curious, engaged and engaging. I was in love with them collectively.

We were also now linked to my step-siblings’ father’s family, another huge clan of intelligent eccentrics. One Christmas morning, I woke up on a strange camp-bed in a box room and, for a moment, couldn’t fathom where I was. Then I remembered — I was in Cambridge, in the house of my dad’s second wife’s first husband’s mother. I wondered if that made her my step-ex-grandmother-in-law? No-one was quite sure. Looking out of the window, I spotted our hostess, then in her seventies, in dungarees and on a bicycle with a bucket swinging from each handlebar — “off to feed the pigs”.

None of this seemed especially odd. Children are not born with prejudices or preconceptions about anything; they acquire them en route to adulthood. They are fantastically accepting of difference if not conditioned to think otherwise, just as they are unperturbed by noticing that the world includes daffodils as well as roses. Things are as they are.

I didn’t know that it’s not so common for people to get along well enough with their ex-spouses that they still choose to spend time together. After my parents split, they did the same thing themselves. It’s good for children to witness that their divorced parents can occupy the same room at the same time and drink tea together without feeling the need to hurl the cups at each other.

By contrast, our own immediate family was tiny, with just one aunt and uncle on each side. They were not keen on children in general, including us. My step-families showed me other ways of being a family — that a family could be close but with more emotional space between them, caring without being claustrophobic. It made me question ingrained family assumptions. If you were arty or intellectual, you didn’t have to be snooty about sport —it didn’t have to be either/or. You could be someone like my step-sister, who has run up the Matterhorn (twice) and yet also makes her own notepaper — athletic and artistic.

One of the themes that intrigued me when writing my new novel, A Second-Hand Husband, was the fusing of people from disparate backgrounds, with differing expectations, patterns and customs of family life.

Although these step-mishpocha were so different from our own family, the differences were mostly a source of fascination rather than anything negative. Becoming linked with two other clans helped to bring me out of myself, to see that there were other ways of being not just a family but an individual within a family — to belong to something bigger than yourself without its having to change who you are.

For me, there’s a parallel with being Jewish. I’m not a Jew that God would necessarily be proud of, given that God and I — to coin a posh, boarding school term — have not been on ‘speakers’ for many years now, but I do feel an unwritten bond with other Jews, a sense of belonging to a tribe.

And that’s what I liked about becoming part of an extended step-family, that feeling of being part of something larger, stronger, more united than our own tiny family — like being the resident of a fair-sized island rather than clinging to a tiddly raft.


A Second-Hand Husband by Claire Calman was published in paperback, e-book and audio-book this week by Boldwood Books

Twitter: @clairecalman

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive