Fandom keeps my family close, even now that we live apart

I grew up homeschooled in the middle of nowhere in the early days of the Internet, a time when we still looked up all our facts in a yellowed set of World Book Encyclopedias. My parents were camp directors and my family lived at camp. My friends always thought this was glamorous: having a whole camp to play on all year, not just in the summer. But off-season camp was like a big empty shell, hollow and full of echoes. The four of us—me, my two brothers and my sister–would run across the dry grassy hills, ducking in and out of the empty cabins.

My mom decided to teach us at home because she wanted her kids to love learning, and she didn’t believe in the rigid structure of school. We didn’t watch much TV (we only got two channels), but we did watch the same few movies over and over, and we read constantly. Before my siblings and I even knew what it was, we had our own fandom, composed of only each other.

When I was eight, I staged a production of The Little Mermaid on the creaky wooden stage in the camp rec hall. Our parents, aunts, and the camp secretary arranged themselves in plastic chairs to be our audience. My brother Eric was Ursula, lurking in a corner of the stage in a clown wig and my dad’s purple high school graduation robe. My brother Kevin and sister Tessa were still toddlers, so they played tropical fish in their bathing suits and spent most of the play crawling around and looking cheerful. I cast my cousin Will as the prince, and I was the mermaid—the star! To make my mermaid tail I wore one of my mom’s wooly maroon legwarmers pulled up over both of my legs—really, the whole production was an excuse for me to cosplay as a mermaid. In the scene where I saved the prince from drowning I hopped across the stage in the camp rec hall, dragging Will with all my strength over the rough boards. “Be careful!” He hissed in a stage whisper, “These are my Sunday pants!”

After reading Bridge to Terabithia, my siblings and I formed our own kingdoms. Our castles were formed from the twisted mountain laurel shrubs in our woods, green canopies with a carpet of dry leaves underneath. I buried a jar of Cheerios in mine, in case I needed a royal snack. Kevin made up his own alphabet and used it to write out the laws of his land. One year, Eric bought me my own sword from the flea market. It had a gilded handle, a dull blade, and came in a black leather scabbard. I could have died from joy. I took that sword out in the woods and hacked down armies of thorn-covered shrubs until I was good and exhausted.

Our parents were fans before we were. We were staying at my grandparents’ vacation house in Florida when my dad sat my brothers and I down for our first viewing of Star Wars: A New Hope. Here we were in this magical land where you could pick oranges and kumquats right out of the yard, and now we would get to watch a real grown-up movie. When it was time for bed, my dad paused the tape in the middle of the trash compactor scene, sending us to sleep in deep suspense. Right from the start those images of distant galaxies and impossible beings wove their way into my dreams.

Each week, when my dad watched Star Trek: The Next Generation I watched along, and that something special just for us made us a team. I had the same feeling when my mom was pregnant with Kevin and thoroughly exhausted, so my dad read The Chronicles of Narnia to Eric and me. Narnia became a place that we could share.

Usually it was my mom who did the reading out loud. When we were small she read us the Little House on the Prairie series, and then we took a month-long trip around America in a cramped camper, stopping at each of the Little House sites and bickering all along the way. Later she read the Harry Potter books to us. Because my family was conservative and surrounded by fundamentalist culture that was more than a little suspicious of witchcraft, there was pressure to keep away from them, but my mom didn’t believe in censoring books. Instead, she read them out loud, intending to explain away any parts that might be “bad.” After a while she just enjoyed the stories, and when we gathered to read she was excited along with us, anxious to know what would happen next.

She didn’t get to read the end of the story. Two weeks after I turned 18, two months before I graduated high school, my mom was killed in a car accident. That summer, Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix was published. It was also the summer that I got my first job, all by myself. My father found a new love. Two of my siblings left on a mission trip. We were scattered and hurt, and we all tried to work through our grief in our own ways.

At the end of the summer, I went off to college and the distance got even harder to cross. I felt alone, and my beliefs were changing. I wasn’t sure how to stay connected to my family. But as time went on, I discovered something: all that time we spent isolated together created a bond of shared interests between my siblings and me. Whenever we were together, we would discuss the books and movies we loved, and it turned out that we loved the same things, and we loved talking about them.

As each new Harry Potter book came out, we turned to each other to squeal over the book, and then to argue about it. We started group texts and Facebook chats where we could share with each other on a daily basis. As each of us discovered something new to love we passed it to the others: The Discworld by Terry Pratchett, Hayao Miyazaki’s films, and our favorite TV show: Veronica Mars. These things gave us something we could always talk about, no matter how far apart we were. We freaked out together over the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, sharing speculations about the movie and pictures of our new t-shirts on a group Facebook chat.

While my sibling bond has grown stronger in the wake of my mom’s death, it can still be difficult for me to connect back to our dad. There are many ways that we are the same, but managing our differences is hard work that makes me anxious and doubtful. But on my last trip home, my dad told stories about watching Star Trek in black and white when he was a little boy. He showed the whole family the first movie he saw in theaters, “The Horror at Party Beach.” He’d been six years old and terrifed, but for the rest of his life he would be fascinated with aliens and monsters. I knew exactly how he felt—if we’d been kids at the same time, I like to think we would have been friends.

Being fans gave my siblings and me a bridge. We can argue about the implications of a story or talk about the ways it moves us and by doing that we understand each other. When I’m lost for ways to share my feelings, I know there will always be another thing to get excited about. There will always be hope—after all, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out this year.

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[Image via Wikimedia Commons]