Hi. Barb here, less than a week before I leave Maine for the season. (Sniff.)
I come from a tiny family. My father was an only child as were both my grandfathers. My mother had one sister who had three children, my only first cousins. My mother had two first cousins, my father had three. I have one brother.
Compare that to my husband, who had twenty-eight first cousins and five siblings. No wonder it took me a little while to adjust to his family gatherings.
So a tiny family. Add to that I grew up on the east coast, and my cousins in Chicago. It’s not like we never saw one another. My cousins made several trips to Jersey shore with my aunt and uncle to spend a week in Sea Girt with my grandparents. I remember when I was first married, my aunt and uncle brought my cousin Bill to Boston to see Carlton Fisk catch at Fenway Park. And when she was in graduate school, my cousin Linda visited with her boyfriend and somehow left engaged. I was never sure if her husband planned that all along, or whether after a dozen terrifying trips up and down the Jamaicaway trying to find our house in West Roxbury, they decided to cling together for the rest of their lives, which would have been an understandable reaction.
I was closer to my mom’s cousins, who were much nearer in age to me than they were to Mom. I call them Bobby and Barbara Jean, though the rest of the universe knows them as Rob and Barb. Bobby is eight years older than me and joined the U.S. Navy when he was nineteen, so to me he was the glamorous grown-up cousin, off in exotic places. But Barbara Jean, only four years older, spent many happy weeks over several years with my brother Rip and me in Sea Girt. She was the one who talked to me about teenager stuff like dating and dances. As the older child in my nuclear family, I’d have no idea about popular music before the Beatles if it weren’t for Barbara. But thanks to her, I can sing along to the entire score of Jersey Boys.
During the adult years of kids and careers and craziness, we didn’t see much of one another. But then we didn’t need to. We had our moms, who kept up on the telephone and let us know what was going on in one anothers’ lives. Mostly, it was the mother-approved, upbeat, happy version, but we also knew about some of the pain and struggles.
Then, slowly, we lost that generation. And we could have just as easily lost one another.
When my mom died, my cousin Bill, who’d grown close to her, really wanted to come to her memorial. I held him off. We’re WASPs, and for us these events are stiff-upper-lipped affairs that you white-knuckle through and forget as quickly as possible. I wanted to see Bill when I’d have time to talk to him and not be dealing with my children’s grief at losing their grandparent or the sadness of my mother’s friends. So I promised we would get together.
The following winter, I realized Bobbie and his wife and Barbara Jean and her husband were in Venice, Florida, and my husband Bill and I were in Key West. Was that enough critical mass to attract the others?
I sent out an e-mail, proposing a date when Bill and I would be driving north from Key West. My cousin Barbara remembers thinking, “This will never work. No way all these people’s schedules fit together.” But slowly and amazingly, the responses rolled in. “Yes” “yes” and “yes.” Everyone but my cousin Susie could make it. Six cousins and their spouses got together in Florida and had a roaring good time. Such a good time, we vowed to get together again.
And we did, last weekend at our house in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. We talked and we ate and we adventured and then we talked and ate some more. Bobby’s wife Jan calculated that among the twelve of us, we represented 225 years of marriage, so by this point the spouses have long, shared experience with the family stories, too. We looked at black and white photos on which my grandmother had helpfully noted things such as, “you can see the back of Rip’s head,” without a word about who you could actually see in the photo, or what the date, place, or occasion was. I lobbied for “someone” to take up genealogy, but so far, no takers.
It was all so easy and fun we started talking about “next time,” maybe in the midwest so Susie can at last join us.
We’re older now. Six of the twelve of us are retired. Only one couple still has a kid at home, and we have a little money in our pockets, so flights to visit family are a much more realistic possibility. But you hafta wanna.
My aunt Carol died last fall, so the last tie between us has been broken, unless we forge our own. We could easily become strangers whose children and grandchildren, weirdly, and for no reason they understand, all make the same potato salad and gingersnaps for family gatherings. But I hope that doesn’t happen. When you become the generation at the edge, there is something wonderful about being with the only people in the world who know where those recipes came from.
Readers, how about you? Family reunions? Yes, no, maybe?
Oh, Barb, this piece gave me goosebumps.
Like your Bill, I come from a large family with many cousins and we are on the brink of being that oldest generation. Only two elders remain, my mother and my aunt, both of whom are in their 90s. The responsibility to stay connected shifted down to us several years ago, and I’m happy to say there is a shared commitment to it.
Our formal and informal reunions always are a blast. The shared escapades of our youth make for great stories.
Brenda–I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Bill’s family has been good about remaining together on both sides, in part aided by geography. The thing you have to work against, as you age, is making sure you meet up for happy occasions and not just funerals.
Oh Barb, I really enjoyed this as I was a lonely and raised in California and my dad’s family lived in Washington D.C. My mothers side was very different as my grandmother was married 3 times and left 8 children behind . The first group 1 boy and 2 girls my mom never knew the second my mom and 2 older sisters and group 3 a boy and girl twins and a little sister. Group 2 and 3 raised together. When I was 8 the cousins started finding each other and I now had relatives. Liked all my family but loved 3 as they were the brothers I always wanted.
Ruth–your mother’s family sounds fascinating. There’s a story there.
Sounds fabulous, Barb. Those childhood ties weave a wonderful lifetime fabric.