I came across this gem not too long ago. I wrote this 7 years ago after a family reunion of my mother’s side of my family. Just a few days ago, on Christmas day, I was reminded of it because my brothers and I learned more in a few hours about a cousin than we had learned over the past 30+ years.
Lesson learned? Be sure to really talk to your family when you see them regardless of how frequently you see them. Don’t just shoot the breeze or talk about the weather. Ask them what their dreams are and what they are doing to go after them or some other deep, open ended question. What are you waiting for? Have a real conversation with the people who matter the most.
There’s nothing more important than family. There is also nothing more interesting than family. As a teenager, I knew my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents as people I was related to who we saw for holidays and generally had a good time with. As an adult, I know my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents as people. And it’s very cool to hang out with them.
Recently we had a little family reunion. We got together for Aunt Jo and Uncle John’s 50th wedding anniversary. The whole event was initiated by their sons. They were going to just have their mother’s siblings. Then one of their cousins heard about it (me) and asked if she could go. Then it just grew! The total head count was 26 people. To some that might be large but to Italians, that’s a drop in the bucket.
Having not seen some of the relatives for nearly 15 years, I, of course, had certain images in my mind of them. Johnny and Robbit didn’t have any grey hair in my mind. Uncle Pat I remembered as taller, though I think the truth is that I was shorter. Jack was shorter; I don’t think that was a false memory.
And there were some that I had never met until this weekend. The last pictures I had seen of Joey and Jenna were baby pictures. My brain had fun reconciling the mental images with the attractive young adults I hugged. Connie and her girls, Alden and Kendall, were kind of in the same boat as Eric… The blond haired, obviously not Italian boat. But they ware family without a doubt. And as Matthew said, “Anyone who would have seen us would NEVER have known that some had only met for the first time because we came together as if we were always together.”
It’s interesting to get to know your family as an adult. As I said, as a kid they were just people to share a holiday feast with. Though John and Rob never actually sat at the kiddy table with us because they were so much older. So, when I talk with my cousins now, the conversations tend to be of more substance than I remember them being as a kid. The conversation is more mature, the jokes are cruder, the language is more adult. But everyone is still just as goofy. That fact is magnified by alcohol and bocce, too.
I never realized that my brother Chris and my cousin Rob are the same person 16 years apart. They are both competitive and frugal. And both of them say exactly what’s on their mind for good or bad. That is something I admire in them both. I also learned that the Roman nose runs rampant in our family. It’s very distinguished. And Ethan finds it much easier to play with than a non-Roman size nose. Chris called it a handle and Uncle Pat agreed.
This weekend was full of laughter and talking and more laughter. There were even a few tears. We watched the wedding video of the guests of honor which was transferred from 8mm to DVD. That was very happy. There were happy tears shed by many. There were sad tears shed by a few remembering loved ones who are no longer with us in body. But they are certainly in our hearts and minds.
There was also a bit of dancing and music playing. Ethan danced around, when he was feeling well, while Mikey was playing the harmonica. There was also dancing on the wedding video where we saw Uncle John holding a cigarette while dancing with his new bride; very Rat Pack. “No smoking, Grandpa!”
Rob, Connie and Jean did all of the cooking for the anniversary celebration. And the food was incredible! Aunt Jo cooked a few things for the onslaught of people arriving Friday night. That was delicious. So wonderful were the stuffed peppers that I had to get the recipe because Eric doesn’t normally like them but these he ate with gusto.
The conversations were a lot of “so what’s new” and “tell me what you’ve been doing”. The great thing about it was it was cousins talking with cousins. Not moms relaying to their children what another family has been up to. This weekend showed me that not only are we family but that we’re friends, too. That is the greatest thing about family as I get older. I am becoming friends with my cousins. And although there was a lot of “friending” going on, I am not referring to Facebook. I mean that when I talk to my newly married cousin, Marisa, I no longer think of her as the little girl with pigtails and glasses who was worlds younger than me. She’s an adult, married to a wonderful guy, Mike – who, incidentally, has been my brother, James’, friend for a long time. Laurain has always been quiet but now that we’re friends I see the quiet as thoughtful and mature. She thinks before she speaks. And Michael… Well he’s in college but always makes time to hang out with his cousins. Probably because James is willing to pick him up to go to a bar. Michael also makes time to find matching t-shirts for his youngest cousin, Ethan. It’s a side of Michael I’ve never had a chance to see, the caring playful side, until he spent time with Ethan.
Rob recognized that we had limited time together and point blank asked each of his cousins what they’ve been up to. It kind of reminded me of speed dating. John has always been, as he put it, the more sober of the two brothers. And although I wouldn’t have put it like that, I understood it the minute he said it. The only reason I wouldn’t have put it like that is because I didn’t know him well enough. But when he used that word, I understood with something older and deeper than just a dictionary definition. I remembered him when I was younger not being wild or crazy. He was always a grown up in my mind. Sober.
My mom has always been “my mom”. I don’t really think of her, generally, as a sister. Granted, when we’re together with Aunt Fran and Uncle Ang, I can’t help but be reminded that she’s a sister since Aunt Fran calls her “sisteh”. This weekend I saw her, and her siblings, shed years. They were kids again. Just brothers and sisters, eating, drinking, talking… But mostly I saw siblings enjoying each other. Siblings who wish they could see more of each other but realize that they have had to do what is best for themselves. Siblings who realize that a long weekend of each other’s company is not quite long enough to say all the things they want to say. But any longer might just be a little too long.
The way everyone got along and participated and helped without whining or complaining is a testament to the parents who raised them. As a new parent, I find myself taking note of the behavior of children and young adults. If I didn’t know the ages of everyone, I would never have guessed there was a teenager in the bunch. Everyone was impressive. I hope that I can raise my own son to be as well mannered, thoughtful and kind as my cousins’ children are.
I watched my brothers interact with their cousins and it was pretty cool. I watched my mom hang out with her siblings. I observed my cousins with their spouses and their own siblings. The simple fact is that we’re all friends. We’re not just family. This past weekend was an incredible lesson in that.
Another thing that is so great about family is that generations don’t matter. There is always a hierarchy and there is always a respect for those who are older, wiser, more experienced. But the oldest person will talk with the youngest without hesitation. I think the age range was pretty large for the gathering too. And whether they are first-cousins, first-cousins-once-removed, or second-cousins doesn’t matter. The simple fact is we are family, who we don’t get to choose, who love each other no matter what; we are friends, who we do get to choose, who like each other because we’re just so awesome, incredible, remarkable, fantastic, charismatic, charming… You get the idea.