Not Half, But Whole – Remarriage & Children

Bryan Cooper, Cullene Harper, Jennie Harper, & Elizabeth Harper - April 14, 1975

Young children can’t always grasp the concept of how they are related when parents divorce, find new love, and have more children with new partners and spouses. When they each bring children from previous relationships to the new family, the soup becomes an even more complicated mix of half and step siblings making it sometimes necessary for a flow chart of sorts when explaining family ties.

I’m the eldest of four girls with only two of us having the same set of parents. Born in 1962, Margaret and I are two years apart. Ten years later, our sister Pam was born into our mother’s second marriage. I remember hearing words like half-sister then and even though I was a reasonably intelligent 9-year-old, I was a bit confused by the concept especially having only just met four step-siblings that I don’t remember ever seeing again.

By 1974 my youngest sister, Jennie, was born on Easter Sunday and being halfway through my thirteenth year, I had a better understanding of the half not whole concept at least in theory. Nicknamed Bunny, by her granddad, she was the child of my dad and my stepmom, Cullene.

Margaret and I were living in Tennessee when the news came of her birth, having been moved away from Georgia by our mother after a judge decreed my dad should be able to see his children more than one Saturday a month.

By the time Jennie was celebrating her first birthday in the photo above, I was living in Georgia with my dad and Cullene watching them navigate through territory that looking back, was more recent and familiar to me than it was to them.

Jennie was born to Cullene when she was forty having passed the age when she thought she’d ever have a child and with twelve years between my dad and his last diaper change, I’m sure he felt as if he were learning everything again for the first time.

In my life with my mother and sisters in Tennessee, I had been largely responsible for overseeing Pam’s care and knew the kind of childcare things that an older sibling knows when there’s a big difference in ages. ” Watch your sister, ” was an all-encompassing directive that could include bathing, feeding, or playing, and I was good at it.

While planning my escape to Georgia only six months before this picture was taken, I hadn’t realized that saving myself might mean losing my sisters. After I left, my mother cut off all communication and moved my sisters to another state changing my sister Margaret’s last name in the process. I lost my relationship with Margaret for the ten years that followed and four-year old Pam grew up with no memory of me, a situation that she and I have never recovered from. Despite my previous efforts, Pam and I are strangers.

In the image of above, you can see me hanging on to my sister Jennie’s birthday hat. After my move, I remember feeling as if I were free-floating and barely secured, much like the hat with only the tiniest bit of pressure keeping me grounded and in place.

That I am only half in the picture feels like an apt metaphor for how I felt about my life then. Everything familiar was gone and even though I was finally safe from the life I had been forced to keep secret, I was struggling to adjust to one without my sisters, Margaret and Pam, and my mother too, despite her treatment.

I began this post with a whole different focus. I was looking for a cute photo to add to a Facebook greeting for my sister’s birthday when I found this one. Having recently had a conversation with John about children and how little they may understand the half versus whole concept when new siblings arrive, I was struck by the memory of this time in my life and today’s writing shifted direction.

My youngest sister Jennie is 37 today, an age I remember so clearly it feels like five minutes ago. I’m sure she would say I’ve been trying to boss her around her whole life while dispensing advice as if I were a third parent or an older aunt, but I have always seen her as my sister, the baby for sure, but always whole and never half.

Although not the big birthday post I’d envisioned, I want to say, ” Happy Birthday Jennie,” from your sister Elizabeth, who once felt half, but now understands whole.

Sisters - Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jennie Harper - 1974

7 thoughts on “Not Half, But Whole – Remarriage & Children

  1. Wonderful post and happy 37th birthday to your half — no, make that your whole — sister.

    Your words resonate with me — my parents divorced and neither had other children, but my late husband was divorced and my stepson and son are half-brothers. I’m so thankful they have each other! My hubby Clive has two half-sisters. Life goes on …


  2. My sister was like a stranger to me .. and we were from the same parents .. She never came to visit me, or when she did it was quick and always with someone else, she used to phone me a few times a year .. unfortunately no longer with us , so cannot be changed.

    I do have a step-sister . ..we live in the same area, but we don’t see each other only if my mum and her dad are down this way .. we were not brought up together and I was away living in other countries .. Life goes on xx

  3. It’s strange that this somehow feels like a happy post in the end. It’s tragic that your mother was so vindictive (to your father first it sounds like). In the midst of so many cruelties, cutting off contact between family members just feels so petty and mean. Sigh.

    I’m glad that Jennie had you (and vice versa), SO glad that you and Margaret were able to reconnect, and just sad for Pam.

    Have you read The Onion Girl by Charles de Lint? NOT drawing direct parallels because your story feels very different. It’s a narrative told from two different time directions about sisters where the older had to leave an abusive past and has avoided looking back, and the younger had to stay in the family and survived in a very different way with various consequences for each girl. I’ve been absorbed in it the last few days, but it’s also painful to read. I haven’t gotten far enough to find out if there’s redemption/reconcilitation in the end, but I hope so! I really respect how much you’ve tried to reconcile with your sisters.

    • OTRgirl ~ I have not read The Onion Girl, but it sounds as if I should. Sorry my post was a sad at first. So much of our family history is awful and the saddest part is not in remembering but knowing that it didn’t have to be as it was. I’m glad you got the happy ending part though. Thanks so much for your caring comment. I recognize that it was not an easy post to read and I appreciate that you read it and took time to comment. xo

  4. I watch the tv show Modern Family and think all families are like that. I found out I had a half brother when I was a teenager. I didn’t meet him until I was in my 30s. He’s my brother and he looks like my father but we didn’t share the sme things so it’s different. My daughters have different fathers but the 2nd adopted the first daughter and I don’t think they think of each other as half.. My 2nd daughter found out she had an older brother after her father died and they have never met. Her husband found his birth mother after his mother died and he has a sister who doesn’t want to meet him. Families are confusing and I used to think I was part of a regular family!

  5. Thank you for sharing this Elizabeth. I grew up in a very separate and distinct step-family situation….and like you can recollect hard things but with the perspective of passed time and a healed heart. Now I am a stepmom myself and had my first and only biological daughter 4 years ago and tho’ we have mentioned the term “half-sisters” in regard to my two oldest (step) daughters…with them here at least half the time the only title they have with my youngest is ‘sister’ in its truest sense. The best sense. Happy Birthday to Jennie.

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