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My Surrogate Family

Leaving your family behind to go to college can be traumatic. But the friendships you form go a long way to fill the gap.

I have exactly one biological sibling, my little brother Will. To be perfectly honest, he is only little now in the sense of being younger. Since I’m seven and a half years older than he, for a long time I was quite accustomed to his being smaller and shorter than me (and the unfair advantage it gave me during wrestling matches). Now he is sixteen plus years old and about eight feet tall. Will was only ten years old when I left home for college oh so many years ago, and since my folks lived across the Atlantic most of that time, I saw him only at Christmas and over summer vacations. I have to say that during those first ten years of his life the little squirt really grew on me. It was hard to be so far away suddenly. I had lost my built-in partner in crime, scapegoat, playmate, baby brother in need of my smothering protection and budding Hinlicky in need of my hard-won wisdom. I just plain missed him, in all his Ghostbusters and nose-picking glory.

So I did the only thing I could think of to fill the gap: I started a surrogate family at college. I collected myself a bunch of brothers, because brothers were what I knew. Far as I can tell, this is a pretty common phenomenon among college students, not just my own quirkiness. We get shipped off to an unfamiliar institution with bizarre social patterns in the hope of becoming independent adults, but on the way we still need the daily love and support of a family. In the absence of blood ties, we construct our own network of relatives, a kind of non-romantic way of preparing to start families of our own.

The first brother I had was Chris. I’m not really sure how we became friends. It’s all kind of fuzzy now — of course, he was kind of fuzzy too. One day I guess I just started chatting with the Ewok-like guy who sat behind me in freshman religion, fascinated as I was by his most unusual earlobes, about the severe poverty of intelligence among our classmates. Next thing I knew he was telling me of his engagement to a girl he’d known about a month (don’t panic, they’ve been happily married for nearly four years now). Ironically, it was another romance that sealed things for us, namely, the end of mine in the spring. The thought of explaining the messy business to my girlfriends, who would pry and ask uncomfortable questions and say dumb things like, “he’s probably just confused and needs some time,” which I knew to be patently untrue. Well, I didn’t want to deal with them. It was easier to go to Chris, the compassionate and understanding Tin Man, and his goofy friends (who reminded me of the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion), for some solace instead. He knew just the antidote — a toy-shopping spree at K-Mart and bowling.

In short order he began to psychologically torment my “ex” since I wouldn’t let him take physical revenge on the hapless (and basically faultless, it must be said) young man. Out of the same infinite concern for my romantic well-being, Chris threatened me into sending a Valentine to another victim who eventually became my next boyfriend (the principle threat being: If you don’t pick a guy, I will. Chris and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye on who would make a good match for me, so I acted quickly). Fortunately, these dominating traits in his personality were balanced by tendencies towards the idiotic, like when he managed to break the overhead light in his dorm room while “fencing” with a plastic pool cue. After all these momentous experiences together he started referring to me as Sis and I was calling him Big Brother. Alas, he had to move away and get married, so I don’t know what kind of trouble he gets into now, but I bet some of it has to do with his housecleaning habits.

Chris was my brother created by emotional necessity. Most other collegians acquire their families by more official means, i.e., Greek organizations. I had an extremely short career as a sorority girl — like a week — before I discovered in the nick of time that I wasn’t meant for it, nor it for me. I have no objection to social fraternities and sororities in principle; they can do a lot to provide men and women with a reliable support network. My personal empirical experience wasn’t that great, so I’m skeptical. But it must be admitted that a Greek organization did play a big role in my college life — though this one was an “honor” fraternity for theater groupies. At the end of my sophomore year I was invited to join the group: Alpha Psi Omega. The price was right ($20 lifetime membership), the duties were few, and it was an honor, after all. Between that and all my older friends being in it, I gave up my fear of the Greek label and went for it. And the most exciting part was that APO carried on the social Greek big/little tradition. The idea is simple: during the raucous “pledge period” before initiation, a member makes your life as a pledge a little more bearable by spoiling you with gifts accompanied by deceptive notes to keep you guessing who it is. After initiation, your “big” reveals him or herself to you (ours was a mixed-sex frat, which made it all the more fun) and then you go to Waffle House together.

Enter Jeff. Jeff is very tall and very thin and for some reason looks like the Cat in the Hat from a distance. He walks like a cat, too, putting one foot directly in front of the other. I met him long before APO through our tiny school newspaper staff where he introduced me to the mysteries of column layout and the wax machine back in the pre-desktop publishing days. Our common theater career began when he did props while I was the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet.” I learned his enormous capacity for mercy when, every night, I broke my fan over another actor’s head and then brought it to Jeff for repair. (One night I drew blood. After that his exhortations to gentleness took root.) Jeff also had the best parties. His room was immaculate and nicely decked out with Christmas tree lights, mannequin legs, stop signs, and available bachelors. (Remember that guy Chris got me with? Jeff’s best friend. Small world. Or at least small college.)

In his incarnation as my big brother, Jeff ended up being one of my best friends. He very charitably permitted me and my roommate (who in a year’s time became Jeff’s ex-girlfriend’s little) to spend hours in his apartment eating all the Ben and Jerry’s (even when it was something particularly unsuited to sharing like Chocolate-Chip-Cookie-Dough.) He taught me how to make quesadillas from scratch. He was APO president, as was his big, Emily, before him and her big, Katrina, before her, so much of his time was spent priming me to carry on the APO dynasty. (It worked.) But then he had to go and graduate and move away too, not just away from campus in North Carolina but all the way to West Coast.

Alas, I was left again without a brother as my junior year drew to a close. But I was also turning into the wise senior that underclassmen run to — much as I had when I was young and foolish — so it was time, at the ripe old age of 21, to turn the generational tables and become a big instead of a little. A new pledge class was initiated and I claimed Jason for myself. The great thing about it was that I was the very last person he expected. Who could blame him? We barely knew each other. Until his pledge period, the principle contact we’d had was when I tried to set him up on a date with a mutual friend of ours (who was soon to be the roommate with whom I ate the Ben and Jerry’s, even though the date never happened). Oh yeah, and for some reason which now eludes me I had gotten into the habit of serenading him whenever I saw him. The fact is that he was incredibly resentful of me at first for being his big — he had been counting on getting someone else, who, at the time, he knew and liked better (um, that was actually the boyfriend that Chris threatened me into pursuing). He got over it during the course of the summer and came back to school a penitent, obedient little brother.

That was a great year. I felt like the rough first two years of school were finally paying off because there was someone who needed my wisdom, someone who was even more clueless than me and so trusted my advice. I provided him with Ben and Jerry’s in my own apartment and counseled him through various romantic, academic, theological and theatrical frustrations, though I never convinced him to abandon his passion for WWF programs. We played rivals in a one-act play, but backstage he was extremely supportive of my suffering lungs as I struggled to learn to smoke for the sake of the performance. We publicly extolled the virtues of our largest of all APO extended families until two even more naive freshmen started currying favor in hopes of being adopted in the spring. And so the family blossomed and grew. I got a grandlittle through Jason (a girl, no less!) and he got a twin through me — Josh — who just so happened to be the first cousin of the original boyfriend that drew me and Chris together and whose older brother I had long been calling my “twin” because of our uncanny similarities (is it just me or is this getting a little weird?). Josh is the cutest of all my college brothers (with all due apologies to Chris, Jeff, and Jason), granola in dress and outlook on life, silly, talented and probably irritated as all get-out that I haven’t sent him a care package in over a year. Such is the burden of getting a senior for a big, who moves away herself and forgets all these college things.

Maybe it seems just too cute to call these friends of mine brothers — maybe just a convenient term of endearment. But the relationship really takes on a life of its own when you define it that way and so exceeds rational explanation. The affection I felt for all of them definitely had a sibling-like cast to it, with all that entails, competition and rivalry and merciless teasing and everything. It also created a strong but safe bond between us as male and female; we could be close without sexuality interfering. I can’t possibly overestimate the value of that, especially in the Darwinistic dating practices that go on at college. Finally I suppose it was just a matter of comfort. With your family you can be yourself, warts and all, with no great need to impress anybody. You’re just real. My brothers and I were real together — and even learned to love the warts.

Copyright © 2000 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Sarah E. Hinlicky

Sarah E. Hinlicky was born in St. Louis, but has spent most of her life in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. She graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne College with a B.A. and departmental honors in Theology and Philosophy in 1998. When she wrote for Boundless, she was a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the monthly journal First Things.

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