Special occasion reinforces the blessing of family

It didn’t seem possible that 20, or more, years had elapsed.

I knew it had been a long time since I’d seen my cousin Steve — he after all had a lovely wife whom I’d never met and two bright and handsome boys with impressive-enough conversational skills to have them dubbed the future senators of our family by my cousin Gail — but my mind reeled from his calculations.

We were standing in the reception hall at the hotel where his younger brother, having just graduated from Howard University’s College of Dentistry earlier in the day, would be receiving his white coat in a banquet for family and friends.

The event, which took place last Saturday in Washington, D.C., brought together the majority of my mom’s side of the family living in North America. Jason, the graduate, was the son of her brother Harold, who lives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And so this milestone had ushered into town not only his parents, but a sister from Calgary and another from Toronto, where Steve and his family also live. Relatives came from Maryland and Ohio, too, with my Uncle Rudy joining us from Brooklyn on Sunday for a Mother’s Day luncheon that would be the culmination of this mini-family reunion.

Driving down to D.C. on Saturday morning with my mom and my brother and his family, I was as excited as they were at the prospect. But my brother and I lamented, too, the many branches of this particular family tree that were thriving so far away from us — the multitude of cousins who lived in St. Lucia whose hearty embrace we swooped into every now and then, aching for the threads of familiarity we would never know, our visits often immersed as much in discovery as reconnection.

Even here in the U.S., with my mom’s youngest brother in New York and other cousins — her nieces and nephews — scattered along the East Coast, our ties are tended only intermittently, as we steer the freighted ships of our own lives, raising families, managing careers and plotting our way through those defining passages of interrupted joy.

If we see our relatives in Maryland or New York twice a year, that’s something of a feat. So making our way to Toronto, and especially Edmonton, would seemingly require more herculean effort. But as I chatted with Steve and his sisters last weekend, the amount of time that had passed since we’d last seen each other appeared outrageous.

Though his parents make more-frequent trips to the U.S. — visiting both his mom’s brother in Ohio and my own mom when they can — if Jason hadn’t decided to go to school in D.C., I wondered how many more years would have lapsed with all we knew of each other discerned from what was tagged onto the end of telephone conversations between our parents.

Seeing their faces last weekend, I realized I longed to know them. I come from a big extended family, and I have always loved this fact. But when we moved from St. Lucia to Pennsylvania when I was 10, the boisterous Christmas and New Year’s parties, the First Holy Communions, the beach barbecues and trips to the countryside, and even the simple dinners at my maternal grandmother’s table, where she always magically had enough for any of her children, and their children, who stopped by, and their friends and colleagues, too — those all became luxuries to be savored on infrequent vacations.

While we lived in the Caribbean, we’d also made at least two trips to Canada. And my brother and I both have hazy memories of days cavorting with our cousins Jill and Tamara, eating peas right off the plants in my aunt’s garden, making billowing tents from sheets strung on the clothesline and staying up late into the night in the room we all would share. I even made my own First Holy Communion in Edmonton because the girls were preparing for theirs during one of our summer visits and my parents enrolled me in their class. I don’t remember much from the sightseeing excursions Uncle Harold and Aunt Josie would take us on, with Steve and Jason in tow, too, but those days are all tucked amid my happy childhood memories.

We did all see each other at least once in St. Lucia after my family moved to the states, on coinciding vacations, and Tamara was there when I visited a few years ago, but last weekend was the first time all of us had been together in ages. And I couldn’t help marveling at the people my cousins had become: warm and infinitely affable, interesting and considerate with that unfailing sense of humor that seems an inescapable family trait.

I even saw my cousins Wendy and Gail through fresh, appreciative eyes, though they live only two hours away and though Gail and I were especially close as kids, playing games and singing songs on my grandparents’ porch, plotting grand adventures and our careers as future fashion designers during sleepovers, roaming the beach together at cookouts and, as teenagers, the town, flirting with a slippery maturity that sometimes paraded in makeup and wild hair and fake British accents, the better to intrigue the boys, whose attentions we laughed off anyway.

This was my family, these cousins who had grown up to be remarkable human beings. And in their presence, with my aunts and uncles so obviously content, I was reminded of where I had come from and all that was good and vibrant about that past. I saw, too, how that past had shaped us all, even those of us who had grown up away from St. Lucia.

My cousin Gail, in observing the crowds around us on Saturday night, noted the perfunctory kisses, the standoffish demeanor and aloof assessments of others in the room, family members, who like us, probably rarely saw each other but had been brought together by this special occasion.

“We’re not like that,” she said. “No matter how much time passes, we always stay the same.”

I knew what she meant. Though I wished for greater proximity or at least the opportunity to be more attuned to each other’s journeys, what was unknown between us did not for a minute detract from the joy with which we greeted each other, the affectionate hugs, the jovial exchanges, the attentive, earnest rooting for some truth, some deeper awareness, of what was most meaningful to our individual lives.

As the weekend wound down, there was talk of the next gathering, the trips to be made to Canada and Philadelphia, the plans to continue reaping from such a blessed harvest.

I would like to think we’ll all make good on our intentions, that we will not allow time, once again, to get the best of us.

Until then, I will remember we are bound by a love that may renew us with great vigor when we get together but is always present, a quiet, steady force girding the craggy wildness and verdant comfort of our days.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times