The morning after we return from Staten Island, New York, my brother sends this text to my mom and me: “I have a happiness hangover.”
It is a sweet echo of the fullness I feel. It also makes me laugh as I think of my aunts, uncles and cousins who may be nursing another kind of aftereffect. My family and I spent last Sunday at one of those rare but treasured occasions given our scattered clan: a party that brought those of us living in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York and Rhode Island together with relatives visiting from St. Lucia.
An aunt in Staten Island, whom my brother Joachim and I met for the first time — one of several extended family members we would similarly greet that day — served as host. And as we settled in for a leisurely afternoon of eating, drinking, dancing and comic entertainment — the latter an unintentional but guaranteed byproduct of having so many boisterous, blunt and amusing personalities in one space — it felt like being back in St. Lucia.
Though I’ve lived much more of my life in the U.S. than there, such gatherings always return me to my roots and the gratitude I have for spending my first decade in the Caribbean, where I passed such a halcyon youth. The ability to savor simple pleasures, my appreciation for family, an inherent inviting warmth and the ready laughter that fills so many a moment — I attribute them all to the vibrant patchwork of love that cocooned me in those formative years. For even the time I spent living with my immediate family in Barbados and Antigua was punctuated by frequent trips back to St. Lucia and regular visits from various branches of our large, sheltering tribe.
My mom’s folks have always been a riot. They are hard workers who take their partying very seriously. When we arrived early Sunday afternoon, one of my aunts was still on the couch in her pajamas, lamenting her aching bones. Apparently, she’d been out dancing at another party on Saturday night until 4:30 a.m., making it home an hour before most of my other relatives did. These were aunts and uncles in their 50s and 60s, cousins with children, grown-ups who have never subscribed to established ideas of propriety or acting one’s age.
Yet I am still stunned — staying out past midnight is challenging enough for me — though I can only laugh as I remember my cousin Jason’s wedding in Philadelphia last summer. The one where my aunts and cousins packed their flats with them, changing out of their heels as soon as we got to the reception in anticipation of the all the dancing to come. The one where my uncle finagled the mic from the DJ, bobbing into a sea of shaking, sweaty bodies, to proclaim “St. Lucia is in the house.” The same wedding where my cousin sat in with the percussionists who had been hired to play during the cocktail hour, after his dad, also a musician, persuaded them of his talents on the drum. The celebration that was a highlight of the summer, seeping its ebullience and mirth into the days that would follow, like a bold and arching sun.
Time with my extended family feels like this, a golden expanse, a sacred berth spinning us all in bright joy. Of course we are imperfect. We struggle, have our differences and personality clashes, drift, sometimes, on distant waves of silence. But the love with which we embrace each other always feels effortless.
As I sit with the balm of my brother’s text the Monday morning after our party, I think how lucky I am to be anchored in so much love. Joachim abstains from alcohol, and my mom and I are not big drinkers, so we are always amazed, even though we expect it, at the copious flow of alcohol during her family’s gatherings. I tell my brother his hangover is the best kind to have.
But it makes me think how such gladness could have eluded us, how even his expression of such a sentiment is a gift I will savor all day. Because life could have turned out differently, led us far astray from the positive, openhearted people we’ve become. We didn’t have a regrettable childhood, weren’t starved for attention or wounded by horrors beyond our control. But we suffered our own traumas, some of them dramatic. And though we were teenagers when our parents’ marriage disintegrated, the slow, painful demise and calamitous aftermath certainly took its toll. We coped the best we could, though not always with the healthiest approach. The turmoil, for a long time, threatened to completely derail my brother while I floundered amid my own poor choices.
Yet we emerged to do well with our lives, to chart a purposeful, joyous existence, with gratitude among the daily mantras we keep. No matter what was happening between them, my parents raised us well. But when I consider our resilience and fortitude, I also know they’re steeped in a vast and layered love that enfolded us at every turn, and in the memories of so much happiness shared and increasing with time.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times