I only wanted my sons to go to college. I wanted them to have the opportunities that I didn’t have. That’s all I asked for.
-my 89 year old grandmother, July 23 2011
I’ll be honest. When I saw the e-mail announcement about my family’s reunion, I wasn’t going to go.
The reunion tradition on my dad’s side goes back to the early 1970s. My dad was the middle child of five brothers and we would get together every three years somewhere across the globe for a week. Sometimes it was close to home in New York, other times farther away. But it was a standing tradition. We would swim in pools or the ocean together, visit cities and tourist attractions together, and of course, eat together. A lot. I always looked forward to these reunions as many of my cousins lived far away and it was the only time we’d get to see them.
As I got older, I began to see how unusual these reunions were. Our family is closer than most. I grew up living next door to two of my dad’s brothers and their families, and their children were more like siblings to me than cousins. My friends jokingly referred to our houses as “the compound”, in a reference to the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod (but without the estates. And the scandals). When I moved to Boston, I moved into my cousin’s apartment. “I don’t even like my cousins,” a college friend told me, “let alone like them enough to live with them.” But this was my “normal”. This was how I was brought up. We weren’t just family. We were friends.
This reunion, though, was going to be different. Our first one since 1996. My first one with my kids. My first one without my dad.
I wasn’t sure I could handle either of those two things.
But as the reunion attendee list expanded, I knew I had to be there. We had family coming from as far away as Brazil and Germany. My cousins were bringing their babies that I had never met. My brother and sister-in-law were going to be there, along with my mother and sister. And once I knew my 89 year old grandmother was making the trip, I sent in my RSVP for yes.
Because this wasn’t about me anymore. This was about family.
Surrounded by family everywhere. Feeling like the old days. Swimming, laughing, eating in 110 degree heat. Feeling nothing but love.
-my Facebook status July 22, 2011
From the moment we got there, it felt like old times. It was an extended family reunion with not just my first cousins but with my dad’s cousins as well. The 13 great grandchildren ranged in age from 10 months old to 9 years old. They ran up and down the corridors of the reception room playing tag and racing each other. They laughed at each other’s silly faces and played games on the floor.
And where else but at a family reunion could my 23 year old cousin make swords out of balloons for my three kids so my boys could “fight” each other? And then join in himself?
This is what I remembered. The joy and ease of just being together. Like family should be.
And my kids? Amazed me.
I’m guessing that at least half of the relatives there know about my son and his autism. Maybe more. But not one singled him out for anything. When he took to the floor of the reception room with his Hot Wheels cars and drove them along the pattern of the rug (which looked remarkably like a road), no one batted an eye. As he wound his way under tables and under feet, aunts and uncles and cousins just let him pass by, sometimes even joining in behind him. They let him be…whatever he needed to be.
There was no sensory overload for him. Everyone understood what he could and couldn’t eat and do. There was no pressure for us to be part of the group, which made being part of the group much easier. His only meltdown was at 9pm our last night there when he realized we were going home the next day.
I learned a few things that weekend about my family. First, they don’t just “talk the talk” when it comes to tolerance, acceptance and understanding. They walk the walk. There were no disapproving looks, no whispering behind backs. Just concern and genuine care for one another.
Secondly, I actually like these people. I don’t like them because they are family but because they are good, decent, and fun. I want to spend time with them. Like my kids, I wasn’t ready for the weekend to end.
And finally, being with my family felt like home. It was a comfort that I had been missing for a long time. Since 1996.
I’m not going to lie and say that there weren’t times that I felt something was missing. I watched my four uncles talk together, and I would remember back to when there were five. The funny pranks felt like there was one jokester too few, the laughs didn’t go on quite as long. There was one less sarcastic voice in the mix. But in many ways, I felt my dad there with us that weekend. My uncles each have traits that remind me of him.
And my kids? Every day they show some part of my dad’s soul. This weekend, they showed me how important being part of a family is.
On the way home, I thought a lot about my grandmother’s quote from the weekend. “I only wanted my sons to go to college. I wanted them to have the opportunities that I didn’t have. That’s all I asked for.” As a parent, I understand that completely, of course. We all want our kids to have what we didn’t and couldn’t have in life.
But in this instance, I wanted my kids to have the opportunities that I did have. I want them to know their cousins and spend time with them. I want them to feel like a part of something special, something unusual. I want them to know that no matter how hard things are, their family will always be there for them.
They got that this weekend. And hopefully, for more weekends to come.
“We are a family like a giant tree branching out towards the sky,we are a family we are so much more than just you and I we are a family like a giant tree,
growing stronger, growing wiser, we are growing free… we need you… we are a family…” – Family from the Dreamgirls Soundtrack