My earliest memories of family outside the nucleus of my mother and father was my mother’s family: her father, three siblings, and my cousins. My eldest uncle and his first wife had three children and we were often sandwiched together during the summer, swimming in Lake George, singing in the back seat of the car, and scouring the attic in our grandparent’s home for dress up material for skits we’d put on for the whole clan as they sipped cocktails and pulled dinner together.
The next crop of cousins would appear when I was ten years old, creating a span between we four older cousins and the seven younger ones, but I always remember marveling when they were born and playing with them when they were little. My aunts and uncles often served as surrogate parents, taking care of me for long stretches of time.
I’m going to do a huge fast forward, but a lot of things would come to pass, not between the cousins but in our parents’ generation: hurt feelings, relocations, distance, divorce, death. The result was a chasm in my relationship with my aunts and uncles. I even went so far as to walk away from my mother’s side of the family for a period of time after her death, like it was my duty to continue to carry her baggage, with a side order of who needs them anyway.
Three years ago, my cousins invited me to my aunt and uncle’s 50th Anniversary party and I attended. I was so nervous going into the evening, I made my daughter come with me. I would be seeing the whole crew after a fifteen year separation. My aunts and uncles were all welcoming and kind, but the best part of the evening would sitting at dinner with my cousins, and introducing my daughter to women with whom she shared so much in common. It was more than fun — it was incredible. In adulthood our age differences melted away.
Last year I bumped into one of my cousins in Utah (thanks to Facebook) and after spending time with her, was finally ready to admit to myself I had a yearning for family. Family with a capital F, as in blood relatives. My mother had been gone fifteen years and it was remarkable how being in the presence of her DNA was strangely comforting.
Riding a chairlift together in Utah, we hatched the idea of a cousins ski trip. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, our parents all shared a true love of the downhill, speed, and risky behavior. Skiing is not just a sport, but sort of a family value, and one that everyone could get behind. After requesting preferred dates from a few of the cousins, I went ahead and reserved the condo, then threw out the details to the group…. people seemed up for it in the springtime, but I wasn’t sure anyone would show when the time came. Let’s just say I bought the cancellation insurance.
Well…. I am happy to report that a week ago, seven of the eleven gathered in Deer valley for a long weekend. I am still glowing! We laughed and skied and talked on the lifts and over dinner. We compared our varying versions of the family history, what was once vitriol in our parents’ generation seemed like a virus we were anxious to be rid of. We resemble each other and act like each other and, as the one only child in the group, maybe I felt it the most — but being around others I recognized in myself planted me to the earth in a way I haven’t been for a very long time.
I see my mother in my cousins, I see my children in my cousins and they see me in their parents as well. Without the cousin’s ski trip, it may have taken a wedding or funeral to get us all together again. The effort everyone made (in most cases leaving spouses at home to take care of young families) was tremendous. The commitment to attend was a demonstration of love for each other and desire to to stay connected.
Before the weekend I felt a little sheepish and separated, but now I feel like I have six new friends. I even met one for the first time (as we are almost 20 years apart in age). The message here is: Don’t wait to get people together. Even the busiest of people will make the effort if you plan far enough in advance. Make it a destination to give people an extra incentive, maybe centered around an activity most of the people enjoy. A weekend is plenty of time to come away feeling connected. Let everybody pitch in with meals, cars, etc. Then sit back and drink it in. It’s even possible your grandparents will also be up in heaven, rewarding you with serendipity and and helping to orchestrate the fun.