This might not make any sense if we don’t share alleles, but I was at a family reunion last weekend and my grandmother commissioned me to write this, though I would have anyway.
My family reunion is not like your family reunion. It’s not an afternoon at a park where people wear name tags and talk genealogy. There’s no mini golf or badminton. If there are introductions, it is not to a distant cousin but to an aunt or a brother no one has seen in decades; to a grown nephew who sees more of himself in this family, his blood family, than in the one that raised him; to a quiet infant, content to chew her fist and watch these people who share her DNA , who will influence the course of her life through their presence or their absence.
This is not an annual event, nor semi-annual, nor even inevitable. The last time my aunts and uncles were in the same room was exactly thirty-five years ago, the day my parents wed. If we were your family, we might take out photo albums and talk abut how young everyone looked, about the fashions that have gone out of style and come back and faded again, about all that has changed. But because we are not your family, because we are my family, no one remembered to bring a camera to that wedding thirty-five years ago. The only surviving artifacts are one framed Instamatic photo and a drawing crayoned by the mother of the bride, the cartoon wedding cake the same size as her youngest son. And the marriage. The marriage survives.
The family has expanded. There are so many grandchildren and cousins and nieces and nephews and husbands and wives that when I try to count the number of my relatives, moving in my head from the Northeast through the South and the Midwest, I lose track somewhere around Colorado. The family has gotten smaller as well, through death, yes, but also through a gradual waning. The missing aunt, the absent uncle, the sons and daughters who don’t call—all have lives and families somewhere else, not so distant in space, yet invisible. But we are here now, some of us meeting for the first time.
It has been thirty-five years and we are together, full of food and blood and drink and stories. It starts with a toast to the Pope, who prescribed our existence. What would this family be if not for the Pope and his rules against contraceptive? Smaller, surely, easier, quieter, with fewer disability, less tragedy. But we would also be without the good, the flawed, the beautiful—the brother whose body failed him from the very beginning, but who didn’t complain, not ever, despite the pain and the transplants and the crutches and the wheelchair. When the siblings rented out their lawn to visitors of the horse racing track down the street, this brother stood outside the nearby cerebral palsy center with free parking and waved drivers into the children’s costly lot, crutches aloft. This brother exists now in the Atlantic and the Appalachians, in Yankee Stadium and on his sister’s bookshelf and everywhere people live with courage and dignity and humor.
Things have changed these thirty-five years. The Pope, not just our maker, but their leader, is now their past. Girls who once walked to school veiled in white, hands in prayer, hail Marys on their lips, left the church long ago, tired following rules imposed by an institution they didn’t trust. To their children, my generation, the Pope is a just a man in a silly hat and a bulletproof box, the church just a building with pretty windows and closed doors. Even our octogenarian matriarch—a woman who has settled into a graceful ease while remaining autonomous, a woman who went down South to work for Obama because that is where she needed to be—no longer has the patience for the distant figures who once ruled so much of her life, preferring instead to create her own sense of what is real and what is right.
Like her, the women of this family are strong, and independent, and willing to forgive. For this one weekend, the sisters don’t hear family news through a conduit, from this sister telling that sister about another’s kids or troubles. This weekend they tell each other about their lives and tell the rest of us about their past. We are grown enough not to be shocked by hearing about our mothers smoking marijuana with our grandmother, who first said that she didn’t feel anything and then asked where she could buy a pack. We are amused and grateful that this is who we come from.
This is our blood and we, the children and grandchildren, need little explanation for the little dramas and larger faults of our family, but you can see that we are exhausting and over-whelming and just plain too much through those who married into this family. They have their own subtle methods of surviving. One husband organizes, another rocks his child, another disappears to a makeshift kitchen, away from his wife’s people with our voices endlessly carrying over each other. These men raised children who are strong and imperfect because they married women who are strong and imperfect, full of conflict and forgiveness.
Everyone is leaving soon, off to our different dots on the map. If we were your family, we might make tee-shirts or mugs commemorating the occasion, say our goodbyes and promise to call. We might trust that we will all be in the same room next Christmas or the one after that. But we are not your family. We are my family. And although we may not see each other before there are more or fewer of us—at the next wedding or funeral, after the next divorce or birth—we will see each other again. We will listen to the old stories and tell new ones and thank both our good luck and the Pope to have been born to this family.