Every character in the play suffers from strained or entirely broken relationships with their biological family. In the absence of these healthy relationships, most of the characters form strong familial bonds with people outside of their immediate biological families. Water by the Spoonful thus argues that although biological families often fall apart or fail, individuals’ real family members are the people they choose to love and invest themselves in.
Each character suffers from estranged relationships with various family members, demonstrating that biological families are fragile and prone to falling apart. Most of the members of the addiction forum—all except for Fountainhead—have been rejected or cut off by their families. Haikumom gave up her son Elliot after her crack-induced negligence resulted in the death of Elliot’s sister; Orangutan’s parents have cut her off and bought her a one-way ticket to leave the country; Chutes&Ladders’s son refuses to acknowledge him and hides his existence from his own children. All of these estrangements reiterate how familial relationships often fall apart, especially when substance addiction is involved. Not only is Elliot estranged from his biological mom Odessa (Haikumom) due to her former crack addiction, he seems also to be distant from his dad, suggested by the fact that his only interactions with his dad are curt text messages that lack any affection whatsoever. Yaz, Elliot’s cousin, is estranged from her ex-husband, who is in the process of divorcing her simply because he decided he did not love her anymore. The banality of Yaz’s divorce and her husband’s lack of a substantive reason reinforce the fragility of biological and marital families.
Although the dissolution of biological families is immensely painful, Elliot’s improved life and Chutes&Ladders’s son’s success suggest that sometimes such separation and loss is the healthiest option. Although Elliot hates Odessa, partly for the death of his sister but also for abandoning him as a child, Yaz recognizes that Odessa’s giving him up and stepping out of his life actually saved it. Since Odessa was not well enough to care for Elliot, and since being present in his life in the midst of her addiction might have pulled him into it, letting her biological family come apart was the best option Odessa had. In a similar manner, though Chutes&Ladders grieves his son’s rejection of him, he too recognizes that his son has been able to lead a healthier, more normal life in his absence since. In his own words, Chutes&Ladders was using drugs and hurting the people in his life every day. However, the immense pain that Chutes&Ladders feels over the loss of—and rejection by—his son emphasizes that even when such separation is the healthiest option, the emotional wounds it inflicts are nonetheless severe.
In the breakdown of their biological families, each of the characters forms new familial connections with people outside of their immediate family, suggesting that family is ultimately about whom one chooses to love and depend on. After Elliot is taken from Odessa, he is raised by his aunt Mami Ginny, whom he considers to be his real mom even while speaking with his biological mother. Elliot lives with and cares for Mami Ginny through her struggle with cancer and, after her death, he grieves the loss of his single true parent. Elliot’s attachment to Mami Ginny demonstrates that family is a flexible, dynamic concept: one’s true family is not who they are born to, but whom they love, care for, and invest themselves into. Though they are cousins, Yaz and Elliot form a sibling-like relationship over the course of the play—the closest between any two characters—now that she has lost her husband and he has lost his mom. This again reinforces the concept that family is mostly about whom one chooses to depend on and support. Even the forum, though its relationships are only digital, has a semblance of a family structure with Haikumom as the mothering figure. Since most of the forum members are estranged from their biological families, they divert that energy into caring for each other online by supporting and fretting over each other’s wellbeing from a distance. Although this is not an entirely adequate substitute for a living, breathing family, it still creates the closest thing each of the forum members (aside from Fountainhead) has to family relationships.
Although the play’s characters have broken family relationships, their ability to form familial bonds with people outside of their immediate biological families suggests that family is largely determined by the love that people have for each other.
Family Quotes in Water by the Spoonful
YAZ: You wanna be my witness?
ELLIOT: To What?
YAZ: My now-legal failure. I’m divorced.
ELLIOT: Yaz. I don’t want to hear that.
YAZ: You’ve been saying that for months and I’ve been keeping my mouth closed. I just need a John Hancock.
YAZ: […] The ugliness bore no promise of a happy ending. The ugliness became an end in itself. Coltrane democratized the notes. He said, they’re all equal. Freedom. It was called Free Jazz but freedom is a hard thing to express musically with spinning into noise.
ELLIOT: All those have carnations. I don’t want a carnation within a block of the church.
YAZ: You told me to eliminate seven. I eliminated seven. Close your eyes and point.
ELLIOT: Am I a particularly demanding person?
YAZ: Yes. What’s so wrong with a carnation?
ELLIOT: You know what a carnation says to the world? That they were out of roses at the 7-Eleven.
YAZ: […] You know, [William’s] been to four funerals in the Ortiz clan and I could feel it, there was a part of him, under it all, that was disgusted. The open casket. The prayers.
ELLIOT: It is disgusting.
YAZ: Sitting in the pew knowing what freaks we are.
ELLIOT: He’s good people.
YAZ: I was probably at his side doing the same thing, thinking I’m removed, that I’m somehow different.
YAZ: […] Look at that guy. Arranging his daisies like little treasures. What do you think it’s like to be him? To be normal?
ELLIOT: Normal? A hundred bucks says that dude has a closet full of animal porno at home.
YAZ: I bet in his family, funerals are rare occasions. I bet he’s never seen a cousin get arrested. Let alone one under the age of eighteen. I bet he never saw his eight-year-old cousin sipping rum through a twisty straw.
ELLIOT: Let’s not act like this is some heroic sacrifice. Like this makes her the world’s martyr.
YAZ: We’re not going to get more than fifteen bucks for it.
ELLIOT: Symbols matter, Yaz. This isn’t about the money. This is shaking hands. This is tipping your hat. This is holding the door open. This is the bare minimum. The least effort possible to earn the label “person.”
YAZ: Why wouldn’t you ask me for help? Why would you deal with that alone?
ELLIOT: The opposite of alone. I seen barracks that looked like dope houses. It was four months in my life, it’s over. We’ve chopped up a lot of shit together, Yaz, but we ain’t gonna chop this up. This shit stays in the vault. You got me?
ELLIOT: Yaz. Please. Please.
ELLIOT: Titi, Odessa fucking OD’d and she’s dying on her living room floor and I can’t take this anymore! COME GET US before I walk off and leave her on the sofa.
YAZ: If you need to, go. No guilt. I got this.
ELLIOT: She’s my mom. Can I be angry? Can you let me be angry?
CHUTES&LADDERS: Why are you there? Were you using with her?
CHUTES&LADDERS: Did you sell her the stuff?
FOUNTAINHEAD: No, Jesus, of course not. She gave them my number. I’m her emergency contact. Why, I have no idea, we’re practically strangers.
YAZ: […] I wrote a list [of achievements] on a piece of paper and dug a hole in Fairmount Park and put it in the ground and said, “When I turn thirty, I’ll dig it up and cross it all off.” And I promise you I’ll never have the courage to go to that spot with a shovel and face my list full of crumbs, decoys, and bandaids.
ELLIOT: I wanted Mami Odessa to relapse, Yaz. I wanted her to pick up that needle. I knew precisely what to do, what buttons to push, I engineered that shit, I might as well have pushed the thing into her vein. Because I thought, Why would God take the good one? Yo, take the bad mom instead! I was like, Why wouldn’t you take the bad fucking mom? If I stay in Philly, I’m gonna turn into it. I’m gonna become one of them. I’m already hallway there. You’ve got armor, you’ve got ideas, but I don’t.
YAZ: Go. Go and don’t you ever, ever look back.