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  • Writer's pictureJoseph F. Berenato

On birthdays, blended families and becoming a man

Carter celebrated his 18th birthday this year. (Courtesy Photo)

As I sit and write this, it is my stepson Carter’s 18th birthday.

Carter is a relatively private person—especially surprising given his age in the era of social media—and I know I’m going to hear about it for “putting his business out there,” but I hope that he’ll forgive me—and that you’ll indulge me—as I gush with pride for a few hundred words.

But for a sojourn when he lived with his grandmother in Florida for a time, I have had the privilege of sharing a roof with Carter for exactly five years as of this writing. I have watched him grow from a fresh-faced (and sometimes fresh-mouthed) kid into the responsible man he is now.

It wasn’t always easy for the two of us; he was adjusting to living with a new stepfather and I was adjusting to living with two new stepsons (his brother, Hayden, is 19 months his elder), but it was impossible not to like him from the start.

At the time, we were living in Ventnor, and Carter put his all into making sure we were a cohesive family unit. He never shied from taking walks with us through the city, whether it was to the pizza joint a half-dozen blocks down or heading up to the boardwalk for an evening stroll.

He sometimes did take his solo walks a little too far; one time he called us because he had walked down to the Trump Taj Mahal and was too tired to walk home.

I couldn’t be that mad; when I was that age, my friends and I rode our bicycles to the Hamilton Mall because we wanted Cinnabons.

The difference, though, is that I didn’t tell my parents until 10 years later.

Carter, as I understand, has always been good at tattling on himself. Robyn loves to tell the story of the time when Carter was just entering middle school and he decided to cut class for the day. Robyn found out a few hours later when she called the house to check the answering machine and—instead of laying low—Carter picked up the phone.

Like most kids, Carter got into his share of mischief; he just got caught more than others.

Fortunately, he figured out early on that he wasn’t cut out for a life of crime and instead decided to become one of the hardest-working people I know.

That, too, started early.

When he was 7 or 8 years old, there was a work crew in his neighborhood redoing a roof and leaving quite a mess on the yard. Carter offered to help, and they paid him $3 to toss the shingles in the dumpster.

Thus began his first job. The crew had a few jobs in the neighborhood, and each day after school—and on Saturdays—Carter helped clean up the yard so none of the other men had to do it. Over time, his pay increased to $5, a sandwich and a bag of chips for every day he went to work.

That work ethic has only strengthened since I’ve known him.

At 14, he was working with me on the farm.

Two weeks after moving back from Florida, in the middle of a pandemic and rampant unemployment, he got a job pumping gas, washing cars and changing oil.

Six months later, he found work with a construction company.

Like I said, Carter is a hard worker. He’s also a good son, and fiercely devoted to family.

Four years ago, Robyn and I were planning to elope. It was the third marriage for both of us, so we figured, why all the pomp and circumstance?

Carter wasn’t having it.

He insisted we have a proper wedding so he could attend, so we did. It was a small affair—only 25 people—but it meant the world to him.

We did draw the line, however, at him joining us on the honeymoon.

Even now, at 18, with his own job and own means of transportation, Carter chooses to spend time with us. He likes hanging out. He likes playing games with us. We share memes and bad dad jokes.

Every time he leaves the house, he says, “I love you.”

It was sometimes rocky—blending a family often comes with its square-peg-in-a-round-hole moments—but those times were the exception, not the rule.

The last five years have been the best of my life. Sure, Carter is responsible for many of the gray and white hairs in my beard—a fact of which he is immensely proud—but he is also responsible for many of the laugh lines in my face, a fact for which I am immensely grateful.

So, happy 18th birthday, Carter. Your mother and I are very proud of you, and we both love you very much.

Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at


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