This was originally posted over at Edgy Mama as it was a Blogging 4 Books entry made before I had a blog:

This month’s Blogging 4 Books topic is “Write about someone you've chosen to be a part of your family (biological, spiritual, vocational, etc) and what that person has brought to your life.”

As soon as I read this month’s topic, I thought about a special someone in my life.

I collect strays. I don’t find them walking down the side of highways or wandering aimlessly through neighborhoods. They aren’t usually homeless and most of them deny being a stray at all. As a child and a teenager, I would see them sitting alone in the corner of the school gym, while everyone else played dodge ball. At lunch, they sat at a table for one. The quiet boy at the back of the classroom, never raising his hand; the new girl who was not yet sure who to talk to – all of them, strays. My Wendy complex in high gear, I’d collect them like ‘lost boys’ and bring them into my circle, making them warm and welcome until they found their place and moved on. They always moved on, eventually. Except one.

Years after school, while busy with the day-to-day responsibilities of marriage and children, I somehow forgot about my childhood stray collecting tendencies. I didn’t have time. I lost my ability to notice. We then moved away from my childhood stomping grounds. Suddenly, I was a stay at home mom, living in the country. My nearest neighbor was a quarter mile away. My family was even further and I felt lost. Gone were the daily visits from at least one of my younger sisters, lunches with girlfriends, and weekend gatherings. Just when I thought I would go nuts, I met someone who would change my life. Like me, he stayed at home with the kids. Unlike me, he had almost no family to miss, whereas mine is an enormous, deafening conglomeration of parents, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents who all manage to stay extremely close. As we began to form a friendship over our own little playgroup days and endless cups of coffee, I recognized something about him. He was a stray, in disguise. The recognition touched my heart and I found I could not help but collect him as I had done so many others.

We became great friends and I began to integrate him into my family. It was a slow induction, at first - beginning with an open door, fresh coffee and time to chat whenever needed. It progressed to weekend poker nights and invitations to my kids’ birthday parties. A short while later, he and his wife divorced and he was alone. His appearance in my kitchen became a daily routine. Our weekend poker nights grew into discussions that lasted until the wee hours of the morning - about life, its highs and lows, and all the things we take for granted. I found myself growing – becoming more attuned with who I was as a person and who I wanted to be. I found renewed intent to reach goals I had forgotten. We both found an outlet in each other – someone who could hear everything we had to say while not, for a moment, thinking to judge.

Our oldest boys became best friends. My kids both call him ‘Uncle’. They called him, yesterday, to wish him a happy birthday. It is one of the first, in many years, that he was not here. Twelve years have passed now. He has moved away but we still get together for weekend poker nights. We still talk afterwards, until the sun comes up. Over the years, he’s helped my husband plan the ultimate Christmas gift for me, helped build last minute barns for unexpected horses, and has answered his phone when I needed a friend at 3:00 a.m. – all without asking for a single thing in exchange, except the unspoken knowledge that he belongs to a family who will not turn him away.

Looking back, it is hard to imagine a time when he was not part of our little circle. My family’s yearly Fourth of July reunion now numbers 41. My family looks forward to seeing him nearly as much as we look forward to bringing him. He held one hand while my husband held the other at my grandmother’s funeral. His tears were just as real as ours were. I will always remember the way her face lit up when he spoke to her in her native German. My father and stepmother have unofficially adopted him. Christmas Eve at their house is not the same without him. He is as expected to be there as I am.

Some people see our relationship as strange, considering how close we are and the fact that I am happily married. Some think the two cannot go together. To that, I can only shrug. I don’t know how, but it works. He is my soul friend and, in recent years, my writing muse. A two-minute conversation with him always seems to refill my well of creativity. He relentlessly inspires me to go beyond my best efforts. He gives me a kick in the pants when I’m overly critical of myself. I tell him when he’s whining but I still listen to every word. I give him hugs when he’s too stubborn to admit he needs them. I encourage him to reach for things he does not think he deserves. He laughs even when my jokes aren’t funny, and then makes me laugh until I snort coffee through my nose – because his are always funny.

Ultimately, he has brought everyone in my life an extra dose of love, humor, honor, understanding, and something strays are particularly gifted with – a true appreciation for family. While he used to be a stray, he is now simply… mine. With the Christmas season upon us, I find myself truly blessed. This year, as with the last twelve, I will be surrounded by both the family I was born with and the one I have chosen. I wish every person could be so blessed.
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