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November 26, 2010

Harry the Ham: Francesca Serritella on Second Families

Posted by Anonymous


LisaAndFrancescaScottoline.jpgAs if you haven’t had enough to eat already, today we’re offering you some post-Thanksgiving food for thought from Francesca Serritella --- who recently co-authored a collection of essays called MY NEST ISN'T EMPTY, IT JUST HAS MORE CLOSET SPACE with her mother, award-winning author Lisa Scottoline. Below, she shares her thoughts on second families --- and why, on Thanksgiving, we’re better off with them than without them.

My family is small. Since it’s only my mom and me at home, our Thanksgiving has never been the Martha Stewart production it can be for some other families. My dad’s family has Thanksgiving in New York; my grandmother and uncle have Thanksgiving in Miami. My mother and I buy a last-minute turkey, make up some wacky ingredients for a stuffing, and eat together with Frank Sinatra playing in the background and a lot of warm, furry dogs warming our feet. It has always been nice, and I know we’re lucky to have each other, but sometimes it has just felt small.

Until Harry.

Harry is our neighbor; he’s in his 80s, and we got to know him by running into him when we walked our dogs. He used to go for a long walk every day, waving a white handkerchief so cars would see him. He would stop to chat with us, always cheery and warm, even when the late-autumn wind made his nose red and his eyes tear.

A few years ago, my mom invited Harry to our Thanksgiving dinner, and he arrived at four o’clock sharp, wearing a cozy, Icelandic sweater and graciously removing his Irish tweed cap as soon as he came inside. During dinner, my mom asked him about his hobbies, and to be honest, I didn’t expect this to be the most thrilling conversation topic. After all, my grandmother’s hobbies are crosswords and yelling at my uncle. But Harry’s face lit up at the question.

“I’m a Ham!” he said.

We didn’t get it.

And with that, Harry turned into a live-wire. He talked about his hobby as a Ham Radio operator, a mode of amateur radio broadcast first made popular in the 1920s. Harry told us all about using radio technology while serving in WWII, and we sat, rapt, as he described the process of sending a signal into the air, bouncing it off the stratosphere, and bending it around the earth. He seemed like Merlin, hands waving in the air --- his fingers had lost their quiver, and his watery eyes were bright and shining.

Well-meaning, but being somewhat of a teenage buzz-kill, I asked, “Have you ever tried email? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

No, he said. He enjoys the effort --- a foreign concept in my wireless Internet, instant-messaging world. Even though Ham radios can communicate through voice, he still uses Morse code sometimes, just for the fun of it. Most of all, he enjoys belonging to the community of Hams. “I get to meet people I would never meet. I have friends around the world.”

That night, it didn’t matter that Harry and I didn’t share a last name, or that we didn’t share the same relatives or the same nose. That Thanksgiving, he was family. He still is.

What Harry and my mother taught me that Thanksgiving, whether they knew it or not, was that you don’t just get your family: You can create your family. We do it all the time without realizing it; we form bonds with the people we work with, live with and learn with. Sometimes I felt homesick when I was up at college, but I also created my own little family of friends at school. And I hope all those brave soldiers overseas have found second families in their comrades --- people to support and lean on when they’re forced to be away from loved ones at home. 

These second families don’t replace our first one; they just extend it. 

It wasn’t until that Thanksgiving with Harry that I really got it: There are no rules for what or who makes a family, no limits on love. The holidays especially are a time when we can reach out and say “thank you” to all the people who make up our many families. And sometimes, if you’re lucky like me, Thanksgiving can even be a chance to set an extra plate at the table.

Looking out the dining room window, I can barely see Harry’s house for all the trees. But inside that house is a man who is not alone. There lives a man who is an expert at reaching out to people, whether by angling radio waves around the globe, or by flagging us down on a walk around the block. He has us; he has our other neighbors --- he has friends around the world. But even better, we have him. 

And for that, I am thankful.

Look for Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella's collection of essays in MY NEST ISN'T EMPTY, IT JUST HAS MORE CLOSET SPACE and WHY MY THIRD HUSBAND WILL BE A DOG. You can visit Lisa at and Francesca at

Tomorrow, Sarah Blake muses on a few of her favorite things: bad winter weather and a good book.