When I turned six, my family threw me a “Brady Bunch” birthday party. Partygoers posed in a homemade Brady Bunch grid and threw footballs at Carol’s vase (but not at Marsha’s nose!). Our little plastic playhouse doubled as Tiger’s doghouse. We blasted “It’s a Sunshine Day” and “Keep On Dancing,” and we strung beads in our doorways like Greg once did in his attic bedroom. My mom arranged for Barry Williams, the actor who played Greg, to call and wish me a happy birthday. Anne B. Davis, famous for her stint as Alice, sent me a signed photograph. (Oddly, there’s one in the the FM office, too.)
I watched every episode of "The Brady Bunch" back in those days. I liked the plots—sweet, resolvable, funny. I liked the theme song—catchy, peppy, explanatory. I liked the characters—witty, friendly, realistic. I liked the plaid skirts and the word groovy and the bright colors and the bell-bottom pants.
But the plots, the theme song, and the characters were not, in retrospect, the real reasons I tuned in, nor were the fashion and lingo of the 1970s the show’s main draws. It was the fullness of the family that pulled me in, rerun after rerun, in my afternoons after elementary school. I watched “The Brady Bunch” because I wanted a bunch of my own—a big family that burst at the seams of a sprawling house. (A dog would have been nice, too.) At my home in Philadelphia, I had a mom and a dad and a brother and a sister, but the rest of my relatives were scattered across far-flung places like Memphis and Atlanta and Los Angeles. I learned of a great-uncle in New Jersey at his funeral. I found it was more doable to turn on the television and watch a big family than to hop on a plane and have one.
I have long perceived the death of my dad’s parents, both of whom died long before I was born, as one of the most brutal robberies of my family tree. A portrait in the living room gives me a vague sense of their appearances, but I would not recognize them if I bumped into them on the street.
A decade after my Brady Bunch phase, during a family trip to Los Angeles, I asked my dad if we could drive by his childhood home—a small house in West L.A. separated from the street by a squarish lawn. We had performed this ritual on previous visits to California: We would roll up to the house, and my mom would point out my dad’s old bedroom window. My dad would declare, “Well, now you’ve seen it,” and we would drive away.
This time turned out differently. “Could we ring the doorbell?” I blurted out.
To my surprise, my family agreed. My dad killed the engine. We walked up to the porch. One of us pressed the doorbell. A few seconds ticked by. We didn’t say anything. A lawnmower buzzed down the street. The whole thing started to feel like a bad idea. Then someone cracked open the rickety screen door. “I lived here from 1960 to 1975,” my dad said to the face. “I’d like to show my family the house.” The door swung open, revealing a short old man named Don. He was a kindly widower, and more trusting of the five jet-lagged folks before him than I would ever be.
We stepped into the tan-colored living room, furnished by a large portrait of Jesus on the wall and a musty smell in the air. It was the living room, I thought, where I would have had sleepovers had my grandparents lived long enough to host them. Don and my dad, strangers beforehand and afterwards, gave us a tour.
After a lifetime of feeling slighted by the smallness of my family, by the short lifespans and faded pictures and unspoken stories that have blurred my connection to my own genealogy, I found myself surrounded by my grandparents’ memories. I sat in the den that my grandfather had built by hand. I saw the niche that my grandmother made into an office. I walked into the garage in which my grandfather kept his workbench. I peeked into the backyard where they threw family gatherings. Their shadows seemed to paint the walls; their footsteps seemed to track the floors. In those 30 minutes, utterly weird and somehow magical, I felt immersed in the spirit of the couple whom I had always longed to know.
This story does not have much of a redemptive conclusion. I have not seen "The Brady Bunch" in years. (Though I did see Barry Williams in concert in Branson, Missouri.) I still could not recognize my grandparents on the street. I never got a dog. But as I toured my dad’s childhood home that afternoon, I felt a little closer to the Zauzmer bunch that could have been and to the Zauzmer bunch that already is. Although my Zauzmer bunch has sprouted fewer roots than the Brady one did—fewer roots than I always wished it would—it is the best, most wonderful bunch I’ve got.