Family vacations are one of the anchors of recall that floods me with sweet and salty memories of noisy excitement, laughter and resting in a sandy wet bathing suit drying on a towel to the soundtrack of waves rolling in and out on the beaches of Cape Cod and New Jersey. I can still taste the lobster and clams dipped in bowls of warm melted butter, Este’s fudge, saltwater taffy, and marvelous fish caught by our own lines off the side of my father’s boat. Burnt Irish skin slathered in noxema at night and cousins chasing the days in and out, carefree and wild – free to explore the expansive world of sand, marshes and beach stretched all around us. First cigarettes and going to the arcade for “something to do” and passing the time just looking for fun together.
I fervently wish to reproduce that for my children and grandchildren and am stymied by the blocks of circumstance, distance and timing that make it so challenging to achieve. Sheer determination isn’t enough. I hope to figure it out while the grandkids are still young enough to initiate memories like these. Cathy’s recent trip to New York brought the family vacation quest back to mind. Her family was only a block away at the Museum of Natural History from my beloved in-laws’ apartment on West 79th Street.
My in-laws passed away recently. Their absence as my New York “Ma and Pa” is starkly felt, knowing how much joy they would have had to receive Cathy’s family after their trek to the museum. The normal scenario would have been loud and joyous hugs just off the elevator inside the open door to Apt. 6-A. Grins would take over and Quinn and Reed would be admired for their marvelous height at almost 8 and 6, their handsome looks, innate brightness and they’d be called “sweetheart” and “darling boys” with gusto. They would be awed by the welcome and feel it down to their toes. Proud smiles would fill Cathy and her husband’s chests and they would all sit down together at the table laid on a blue cotton tablecloth spread with plates of food from Zabar’s under my husband, Steve’s large gold and amber collage that hung on the wall.
Anne would have asked every kind of question to the boys, and poured exclamations of pride and admiration into the long well of happy ears as my daughter and her husband would preen from the perch of this stop on the map that was a place of home and extended family that stemmed from our mutual connection as mother and daughter.
This scenario that would have been natural, honest and predictable – a common area Cathy and I got to share in our family. My chosen family by marriage, these parents, grandparents and great-grandparents thrived on being involved and present every step along the daily way and we held them close to the heart of people we shared. They knew we had a complicated history but they didn’t care. We were mostly loved just as much, just the same.
The only exception was the in-laws’ annual family gathering for immediate family and their spouses and children to converge for a week at the whim – and as a gift – by the grandparents. The stepchildren and relinquished-reunited children and their children were excluded from this invitation. It was an odd and treacherous line of demarcation that disturbed the family peace for our little cobbled together family every year from our west coast perch. Interventions on my part did nothing to open the door nor to prevent the feelings of hurt, rejection and exclusion for my two daughters. The three of us were well-practiced at being outsiders from an early age, and we each found coping mechanisms that allowed us to come to terms with it and to accept the circumstances gracefully. None of us allowed it to interfere with the genuine loving exchange at other family gatherings when we would all come together over visits and family occasions that had room for all of us. It was just the way it was.
It was not unlike the dilemma I’m faced with as a birthmother, and as a divorced mother – there are just times when it doesn’t fit to put everybody under the same roof. The intention remains with the elders to decide who is invited to their party. We all get it and life goes on. There is still love in the family and it is protected as sacred in spite of the gaps.
In my case, now that I am an elder, I would like my invitation to become a family gathering in some natural setting once a year for my true family (which includes my first daughter, my youngest daughter, their families, and my stepsons) to provide an enjoyable space and a sense of untethered welcome. My children and grandchildren can be together and relax – to enjoy each other on a family vacation so that decades from now, long after I am gone, they will remember the sweet and salty love of being together as a family members – sisters, brothers and cousins – that no social condition or outside person can ever untie from their essential memories of true familial love.
To read my daughter’s counterblog, visit ReunionEyes.