When I was a kid, we spent a lot of time visiting family. Every weekend was spent with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Or someone’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. I remember visiting rural areas way out east on Long Island or the wilds of New Jersey. It was probably more suburban than what we were used to in the city, but in my little kid memory, it was farmland with grass and trees and swingsets. Very Waltons. When we eventually moved to the suburbs they weren’t quite so rural. I can remember sitting in this huge wicker chair with my baby brother. It’s probable that I’m remembering a photo, and of course being three or so everything was huge.
My father used to drive us both days of the weekend to Grandma’s house – Saturday to his mother in the Bronx, and Sunday to his mother-in-law in Queens. Both she and my mother worked on Saturdays. In the Bronx, when my grandfather was alive, he’d take me for walks down the city streets, sometimes in my stroller, sometimes holding my hand, stopping at the basketball courts where I can still hear the bouncing ball in my mind, and then turning around to go back to his building. They lived on Castle Hill Avenue, the same area that Jennifer Lopez grew up in decades later. My father and I got stuck in his elevator once. That’s probably one reason I do not like elevators very much.
My other grandmother had a house. it was attached to another house in a row of attached houses. She had a garage and a basement and a backyard that we could never use because it was so overgrown. I didn’t know the street names, but I could find it by the landmarks, turning right at the white fence and so on.
This was how everyone spent their weekends. One uncle, my mother’s brother would also bring his children even though he’d sit in the same chair and read the newspaper silently while his kids, my cousins visited their grandmother, my grandmother.
My great-uncle who was just called Uncle would visit my grandmother who was his sister and his mother, my great-grandmother who also lived there.
I grew up with his two youngest girls, twins, my best friends all through elementary school. We were one year apart. We went everywhere together. I was the third twin. We lived in the same garden apartment court and when they moved to Florida, my family moved soon after to Long Island.
My cousins called my grandmother Aunt Sadie, because she was their father’s sister. This was so confusing to me. If we were cousins, shouldn’t they be her grandchildren too? I think that was why I called that grandmother Grandma Sadie. It just made sense in my young head.
My aunt and my mother used to do needlepoints. So very often, there would be the same wall hangings in both houses.
I also went with my twin cousins to their other grandfather’s house, my aunt’s father. I wasn’t related to him but he was still part of our family through marriage. No one ever said that though – through marriage. He was my aunt’s father. He was …something….to me. We visited her sister and husband whose names I still can’t say today without compounding them into one word from all three running together speedily.
On my father’s side, we went to my (by marriage) aunt’s parents’ house to play with the other cousins on the other side, who weren’t really our cousins, but they still were. I remember my aunt’s sister’s platform shoes and the basement where we played where the paneling on the walls.
We went to Canada and visited cousins of cousins. There was no running out of relatives who weren’t actually related, but really they were.
Kids today don’t really have that. Families live so far apart that weekends at Grandma’s have turned into Christmas or Thanksgiving or Passover at Grandma’s. Once or twice a year, birthday cards and telephone calls.
Last week, for a moment, I got to introduce my daughter to the wonder of extended family. My cousins had a birthday party for my aunt. She turned ninety-five. 95! This is special. My daughter and I took a little mother-daughter vacation to see my family…her family, and celebrate my aunt’s, her great-great aunt’s, ninety-fifth birthday.
She met cousins that I had only met as recently as my uncle’s funeral about sixteen months ago. It was wonderful to see her standing next to my aunt and the people I’d grown up with. She met my mother’s brother and sister who came to town for the party. I hadn’t seen them in probably twelve years. I heard the story – again – of how I was the centerpiece of that aunt’s sweet sixteen birthday party since I’d just been born a month and a half earlier.
Despite there being a millennial at the table with the same name, my uncle, at fifty-seven insisted that he was “little” David. Mine is the only family without a boy named David in it. The original David was my great-grandfather who I don’t remember.
There were countless hugs, and still not enough.
Cousins I had never met but who still knew me. Phone numbers and emails were exchanged. My cousin’s step-daughter’s mother sat across from my daughter and next to my cousin, the widow of my blood cousin.
What does that even mean?
I sat next to an uncle I hadn’t seen in decades and he said something that I hadn’t thought about in words: four generations. Four generations of family at that table. I knew the family being there was a big deal, it felt like a big deal, a wonderful deal, but to put it into words made me stop for a moment and look around the table. Was it four or five generations? Six, maybe? In looking again, counting and subtracting, seeing ages 11 through 95. My daughter, her older cousins 15-20, cousins 30-50, my age group, my aunt and two cousins in their sixties, and my aunt who is 95. The logistics and the numbers aren’t even the amazing part – the amazement is in the family who for one weekend stopped to take notice and get together in very much the same way we did every weekend when I was a child; celebrating family in small and big ways.
I stayed with one of the cousins I grew up with for our long weekend, and I’ve seen photos on her Facebook of her own family gatherings – every weekend with her parents ,at home for celebrations with parents, kids, in-laws, step-kids and step-kids’ mothers, an amazing array of family that defies definition. We think so much is different today; that family isn’t always blood now, that we are in nontraditional times, but looking back, I didn’t grow up any different. My traditional family was just the same as my cousin’s modern traditional family.
The feelings we have and share are the same.
I wasn’t sure we could afford for me to go, and then to decide to bring my daughter – Florida in February is where everyone wants to be, but it was worth the airplane tickets and much more to have been there, strengthening ties and making new ones.
It was kind of summed up for me by one of several acts. My cousin’s step-daughter, who I’d only met the year before, waited outside of the restaurant for me so she could say goodbye and give me a hug. It was a long, warm, wonderful hug. This is a new friend, a cousin, who feels like an old one.
This is what family is.