Pretend Family

If you ask me if you should do something, anything, my advice to you will be a gleeful, “Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think that’s brilliant.” I will mean it with my whole heart.

My friend Lorie pegged me years ago, when she said to a mutual friend something to the effect of, “Don’t listen to her. She’s a writer. She just wants to see what happens. Never, ever ask her for advice.” I pretended, for a fraction of a second, to be offended, until she looked over her glasses at me and finished, “You know it’s true.”

It is so true. In the words of Wally Lamb, I know this much is true: if you ask me if it makes you a bad person to do something, if you ask me if something is a bad idea, I will fiercely shake my head, clutch your arm, and coo, “No, not at all! You should totally do the thing. Do the thing and then tell me all about it.”

My point is that I don’t behave like a normal person. I do strange things for even stranger reasons. That’s how I ended up meeting my pretend family.

I’ve given family a great deal of thought over the years. I think at some point, we all wondered if we might be adopted. I took this to a level not attempted by most by insisting I was adopted from about age 3. I remember as a small child pleading with my parents to admit I was a foundling or that they’d stolen me. I sat in my room and spent hours trying to figure out who and where my real parents were and praying to God every night that they would come for me.

But beyond being certain I was adopted, I’d never really entertained the idea of what my real family should have looked like. I had no idea. I just knew that the one I was born into felt wrong, like there was a huge cosmic mix-up with the stork. I was at the movies with Lorie last year, seeing “About Time” when it hit me like a sack of bricks.

“Lorie. Lorie.”


“Bill Nighy should have been my dad. He is exactly what I always thought my dad should be. British. Interesting. Slightly silly, mildly creepy. Aquiline features. Strict but fair. Like a male Poppins.”


“And omg, I just now realized. I think Alice Krige was supposed to be my mom.”

“Who is Alice Krige?”

“Oh, she played the dead girl in “Ghost Story.”


“The Borg Queen in Star Trek? The mom in Reign of Fire?”


“She would have been the best mom. She’s super creepy. That’s what I wanted in a mom. British, creeptastic, artistic, foreboding. The Borg Queen would have been the best mom ever. Fuck it. I’m making my own family picture for the mantle.”


Yes, obviously I would be way cuter if my parents were British actors. I’d look exactly like Nigella Lawson if Bill and Alice were my parents.

Goddamn fucking storks.

Anyway, back to my alternate universe family. About two years ago, about a year after I severed ties with my family, I got a group email. I didn’t recognize the sender, but I opened it anyway out of idle curiosity. It was an invitation to a brunch, lots of banter back and forth amongst the other invitees, a few attached pictures. I deleted it because I had no idea who these people were or why they thought I wanted to go up north for brunch with “mom and dad.”

A few weeks later, I got another email from the same person. This one had a bunch of pictures from the brunch. Perplexed, I scrolled through them. A mom and dad, three men, some women, a bunch of kids. Eating, goofing around, doing dishes. Everyone in sweaters and dresses. It looked like a picture perfect good time. The email went on to discuss what everyone should bring to Thanksgiving, and a suggestion that “Dana” answer her email already.

I scrolled back up and looked at the addresses. There it was, tucked in with the other emails. One of my email addresses. But just slightly wrong. There was a  (.)  where there shouldn’t have been one.

Another Dana.

A Dana whose name was almost identical to mine. An alternate Dana.

I scrolled back through the pictures, trying to pick her out and had the strange sensation that she was the one holding the camera, that somehow she and I shared the exact same perspective, that by looking at these pictures I was somehow looking at Alternate Dana’s family with her eyes. Or my eyes. I’ve lost track of my point.

The whole thing gave me the shivers. I deleted the email and tried to put it out of my mind. But I couldn’t help wondering about this other Dana.

The emails kept coming. Brothers giving each other shit about things, sharing business travel schedules, recommending movies, Thanksgiving pictures, Christmas, fleshing out plans for all the siblings to meet up in Vancouver in the spring, arguing about who was bringing the mountain bikes. Apparently, they all like to travel together. I think it was after the third or fourth email bomb that I started thinking, “I should email them and tell them that they’ve got the wrong Dana. These people sound amazing and poor Other Dana isn’t getting any of these emails.”

But I didn’t.

I’m not really sure why. I think it was partly because I hadn’t emailed them right away. It was sheer laziness, I assure you. I get random emails all the time, but never repetitive ones. People usually figure out pretty quick that they sent it to the wrong address. And now it had gone on for maybe two months. Sending an email would be awkward. And I wasn’t entirely sure what to say.


Well, after the fourth email, I found myself fascinated. Not in a creepy stalker way. I found it all more delightful than anything. A family, with almost the same makeup as the one I was born into. A daughter with my name and three brothers. Except they were lovely. Fun. Functional. They were adorable. And I got the idea in my head that if I emailed these idyllic people, this alternate universe family, they would send me an angry email back (rightly so)  and in some strange cosmic way I would have made Alternate Dana’s family hate me, too.

So I was very firm with myself. Instead of seeing where this would go, I would shut the door and lock it. I decided that eventually Alternate Dana would demand to know why she was being left out of the emails and things would sort themselves out without my involvement. I made myself promise that I would never, ever open another email from these delightful people because that would somehow sully what they had.

And I didn’t. Until after Christmas.

I was half asleep scrolling through my emails, not really looking at the senders. And there it was, another family email. I moved to delete it, but not before my eyes took in the message. Something about finalizing hotel plans for the trip, something about making Dana share a room with one of the brothers (apparently the smelly one)  if she didn’t respond already. Something about an argument with Dana at Christmas.

Well, that woke me up. I pushed my mouse away and read the email properly. From what I could gather, Alternate Dana’s brothers were upset with her because she hadn’t made any travel plans and they were worried she’d be too late to book her flight or her room and the entire trip would be ruined. What was worse, they had brought it up to her at Christmas and she had denied ever receiving even one email and their mother had intervened and chastised the boys.

My jaw dropped in horror.




I related this story to my friend Gina a few months ago and she very painfully and accurately summed it up.

“Your very presence managed to ruin Alternate Dana’s family, too. That’s hysterical. You’re a jinx.”

(She said this with a great deal of affection. And glee.)

I felt terrible. I couldn’t bear the fact that I’d, through inaction, made these wonderful people fight. At Christmas.

I immediately emailed the primary sender, Ryan, back.

“Dear Ryan and family, you’ve got the wrong Dana. My email is very similar and I think you are meaning to email someone else. I am so, so sorry.”

Then I went for a walk and tried to reconcile the fact that I was a living jinx. That my inert presence had caused strife in Alternate Dana’s family. That somewhere to the north, there was a Dana born into a great family and my selfishly wanting to see what that was like, my fear of breaking the spell they had inadvertently woven over me had caused them grief.

I trudged through the snow, cursing my inability to be even remotely normal and chalking it up to having been raised by wolves. I could have been normal. I could have been Alternate Dana. The farther I walked, the more I realized that it wasn’t that I wanted what she had. Not at all. I took solace in the fact that somewhere, far away, was a Dana who had gotten it right. It made me happy. That whoever she was, she was the yin to my yang. It was like the Star Trek episode with Evil Spock. She was Spock and I was Evil Spock. But the universe needs us both. We create balance.

spock-vs-evil-spockShe was the Spock without the mustache. I could live with being the be-mustasched Spock now that I knew that the real Spock was alive and happy. I consoled myself that although Alternate Dana’s family would probably have a terse conversation about Evil Dana, at least their lives would go back to normal.

Later, that day, I checked my email.

There was an email from Ryan.

I braced myself for angry words. God knows, I deserved them. Instead…

He introduced himself. He expressed amazement that his sister and I had such similar names. He asked me about myself. And asked how long I had been getting the emails. He mentioned that his sister had gotten a new email, but that it had been months ago.

I fessed up. I told him I was a writer in Cleveland and that at first I had basically ignored the emails, and that later I had decided they were the most marvelous family and I didn’t want to make them mad at me. I apologized. Profusely. And told him that I didn’t have much of a family, and it was so nice to see that somewhere, another Dana did.

He emailed me back.

And that was when I knew. They really were that wonderful. He told me about the argument, and that it really wasn’t a big deal. And that all the siblings did like to meet up and do things together. He said that it really was like his sister to not respond, and that they regularly ribbed her about how busy she always was. He told me that the other brothers found my story hysterical and that they all wanted to know more about me. Alternate Dana.

We exchanged emails for a few weeks, trading stories. He promised to fix the email situation, but said he’d let me know how the spring trip was.

That made me cry.

Late in the spring, I got an email. Ryan said that Alternate Dana hadn’t been able to make the trip after all, and that one night, one of the brothers had jokingly remarked, “Too bad Alternate Dana couldn’t have come with us. She sounds like fun.”

That made me laugh.

Beyond that, we don’t really keep in touch. But every once in a while, I will get a group email. An email with Alternate Dana’s email address and my own. Pictures, plans, reminders. Several times now, I’ve gotten an email that is nothing more than an inspiration quote for writers, random words of encouragement from people who don’t even know me.  And I marvel at their kindness. And I remember these people, my pretend family, in my prayers.

I got another email this past summer from Ryan. He said they’d all met up in Seattle and had a wonderful time, and asked how I was. I looked at the calendar. It was the exact same week Winston and I had been there with the kids. I told him that, strangely, we’d been there, too. Told him how much we enjoy traveling together as a family, that it’s the greatest luxury.

What are the chances? What does it all mean? Did I see them and not even know it? Did our families do the same thing, see the same sights, eat at the same places? Am I finally getting something right, not with the family I was born into, but with the family Winston and I made together? Why on earth would we all decide to travel such a distance to the same place, together, just a step out of time? It’s gorgeous and elegant and terrifying to think about.

I don’t know what it means. Coincidences happen. Emails get messed up. People all over the world have similar names. Or maybe there are no accidents. Maybe the universe makes beautiful mistakes and gives us stunning glimpses that get us through tough times. Maybe, just a few steps back from my pretend family, I’m catching up with my own.




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