A Family Wedding

If you’re a parent, you’re used to automatically telling people how many kids you have. It’s not always that simple, though. Sometimes, over the years, you realize a child in the neighborhood or one of your kids’ friends has become so close to your family that you almost feel like you belong to each other. He or she really isn’t your kid, of course — but, kind of.

That kind of closeness happened to our family just a handful of times. I’ll always wonder what happens to those young friends — where they go, what they do — and I’ll always worry about them and want the best for them. Xiaodi (pronounced shaw-dee) was one of them.

She was just 12 when she showed up at our house to answer a frantic ad for a babysitter we’d put in our neighborhood newspaper. She was small and short, but very self-possessed, even then; she and her family had moved to the U.S. from China only a few years before. We liked her, our kids liked her, and she seemed to like us, so she started working for us off and on. We called her the Big X. She showed up for those nights when my husband and I were so overwhelmed by the demands of family and work that we rarely finished a sentence for years. With Xiaodi taking care of our daughter and son, we could relax for a few hours and stop impersonating a couple of zombies.

The years passed. We left Dallas for Austin. By then, our kids had outgrown the need for babysitters. But my daughter and I kept up with the Big X. She came to see us in Austin a couple of times. Then, when my husband and I were in New York for the year, she and I had dinner when she came into town for a business trip. Xiaodi had worked in Shanghai as an Internet executive for a couple of years — and New York’s bustle and noise didn’t impress her.

“New York is so calm,” she kept saying. “It’s so quiet here.”

“I’ve never been to Shanghai,” I said. “What’s it like?”

“The jackhammers never stop,” Xiaodi said. “It’s loud and wild.”

By then, it was 2010 — and all our children had grown up. They had gone places my husband and I hadn’t been to, they knew things we didn’t know. I was used to it in that funny way a parent becomes accustomed to being surpassed. It didn’t surprise me any longer.

Xiaodi and her fiance, Allen, got married last week at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It was supposed to rain that day, but the clouds held and the outdoor ceremony proceeded. They married in front of a gorgeous weeping willow, as the cicadas hummed in the background.

I sat with our daughter, both of us smiling broadly and tearing up. I thought how this was one of the moments we all live for, when we’re encircled by life. I could see it all — the small children now grown large and capable, the young babysitter who came knocking at our door, the fast-paced years that were over, what had vanished, what had not, the hurtling of time.

But somehow, it was all knitted together in those few moments, as two people started their future together. We laughed, we cried, we promised we would support them always.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read a kind of related post on playing together and staying together

11 comments… add one
  • Heading into the stage of life when my kid is starting to surpass me at things. Humbling for sure. And so it goes.

  • I’ve always wondered what happened to some of our daughter’s friends who popped in and out of our house as if they lived there and called me “Mom.” Glad you stayed connected with one of your past “kids.”

  • What a lovely story and image. And so is this…“The jackhammers never stop.” Not so lovely — but great chaotic image as I would imagine Shanghai.

  • Sheryl Link

    I’ve been in similar circumstances a number of times and it is always humbling and heartwarming at the same time. Just attended a wedding for a friend’s child…the friend is no longer with us, but her child is all grown up and married now. How tragic and joyous at the same time…

  • Maria Link

    How beautiful. So real and true.

  • Merr Link

    I just ran into a friend of our daughters’ from elementary school at a local market. It was sobering the different turns all the girls’ lives took, mostly in terms of what happened to their families. In a way, I feel too young for such an experience, but maybe I am just at the age where I notice these things with more gravity in my vision, if that makes sense.

  • This short and sweet post was particularly touching, Ruth, because like many parents of kids who are almost adults I’m having experiences like these and not knowing how to put them into words. How many times do we say something like “one of our old babysitters is getting married…” and it completely fails to convey the strength of the tie or the deepness of the feelings. My mom used to say to me towards the end of her life that one of the saddest experiences for her was losing touch with the network of gossip that allowed her to find out how all the grown kids were doing. “I just wonder about them….” she would say wistfully. Now that I’m just beginning to know that feeling, I treasure moments that keep me “in the loop” with all those kids I’ve watched grow up, and hope I never lose that opportunity to follow their lives.

  • This is so true! My mother “adopted” many children over the years. I think I used to call them “Mom’s orphans” because they were always kids who needed a surrogate mother in one way or another. They had real moms, usually, but those moms were falling down on the job. I think she’s still in touch with many of them.

  • Oh, Ruth. You made me cry. My own kids are heading out and beginning their lives without me. I truly miss getting to see things from their eyes – and they’re boys, so if I’m not they’re? Odds of me hearing it all are slim. So it goes.

  • I’m glad to read this, because I’m in the stage where all my mind can think of is: “Oh no! The kids are teenagers! They’ll be leaving home soon! I’ll grow old and lonely and get cats and my husband and I won’t know what to say to each other!”

    So yeah, glad to get a different perspective on things. We’re just barely able to finish sentences now. There’s hope for us.

    And I love your photo!

  • Beautiful. I can’t imagine yet when my kids are old enough to have kids of their own.

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