In the front yard on a Sunday, my daughter leaps into the arms of a guy who’s not her dad, uncle or grandpa. She climbs into his lap and demands he read her a book. During a grocery run, she calls for him from the seat of the shopping cart. While I try to lull her to sleep in the seclusion of her upstairs bedroom, she sits up straight, not tired at all, and asks to go downstairs to see her friend.

“Meetch? Meetch? An dah-ddy.”

Mitch and Daddy are downstairs watching basketball, and Olivia can’t bear the thought of missing out. After all, she’s just mastered Mitch’s name, and there’s something about that familiar face that she just can’t get enough of. 

Mitch is our friend, my husband’s coworker and my fourth mouth to feed. He’s been around since the pre-Olivia days, and in that way, he’s been a pretty constant figure in her life. 

He’s one of a few good people in our life who we’d count as members of our makeshift, West Michigan family. We don’t get home to the east side as often as we’d like, and these people are the ones with whom we break bread on a regular basis. They continue to invite us into their homes, even though I’m prone to spill things once inside or accidentally allow my kid to run off with their expensive universal remotes. They even babysit on occasion, saving me in times when work duties call or when mom and dad need a date night. 

A couple of these people have become neighbors since we bought a house, and it’s amazing to see Olivia not only begin to remember them upon sight but to run up to them on the sidewalk, excitedly screeching, “Hi! Hi! Hiiiiiii!” (In fairness though, she is constantly screeching “Hi!” to every person on every sidewalk. “Stranger danger” remains a foreign concept.)

The makeshift family is a concept, it seems, that we start discussing in college or whatever fills the years following high school. We’re out on our own, finding new tribes of likeminded (and sometimes not) individuals with whom we can pass the afternoons that inevitably turn into late nights and early mornings.

We identify with our roommates and band together, replacing or supplementing the ties that once bound us to parents and siblings with new relationships which, while new, are equally important. 

We have a natural desire to belong in a community and to someone, and it feels good to find your niche. Your people, so to speak. 

I think every family has their own version of “Uncle Mitch.” I can’t count how many people have begun telling me childhood stories referencing a family friend only to air quote the words “Uncle Dan” or “Aunt Linda” or explain “she wasn’t really my aunt, but she was, like, my mom’s best friend and she was around so much we thought she was our aunt.”

My own version is Uncle Ray, a man who is not my uncle and is not named Ray. It’s a long story. He and my father have been best friends since, I don’t know, forever? Uncle Ray has always been around to cause mischief, and his and my birthday are two days apart. He reportedly begged my mother to reschedule her c-section so we could celebrate our birthdays together annually. 

With any luck, one of our makeshift family members will become Olivia’s Uncle Ray, and she’ll be lucky no matter how it works out. Surrounded by good people (who can make great food), our little family has found its niche.