I debated whether or not to write about this. This morning, thinking about what I’d write tonight at my parents’ computer after the girls went to sleep in my childhood bedroom, I figured I’d muse about how different it was to stay overnight with my own children in the house in which I grew up [including me sleeping on a cot in my dad’s spare room-slash-closet while la dra. shares the sleeper sofa that replaced the futon that replaced my old twin bed in my old room with our daughters]. This is not that post.
My family is not a large one. I am an only child. My mom has two siblings, and they have a total of four kids combined. My dad has one brother, and he has two kids and two step-kids. All of my first cousins are years younger than me, some decades. For a variety of reasons, the age gap being a big one, I am not as close to my cousins as I’d like. Holidays had always been a time for both sides of the family to gather at our home to share a meal and reconnect with each other. Throughout the years, there have been times when another family member would want to host, or one branch of the extended family or another opted out to do its own thing elsewhere, for whatever reason. But overall, holiday dinners at our house were a reliable constant. My dad would cook a roast or do his dad’s patented 2-hour-high-heat turkey and a bunch of traditional sides, someone would bring a dessert or two, and we’d spend the hour before dinner hanging out in the living room eating chips and slicing bits of cheese off a big block and and sticking black olives on our fingers. Relationships may never have been perfect and tensions may have been simmering under the surface and we may have been happy, at the moment, when everyone finally went home, but we were together. Food and family.
In recent years, our gatherings have gotten smaller. Families with kids starting their own traditions or getting together with other parts of their families, illness, work, a myriad of personal problems that would keep them from our table. Tonight, it was to be only my parents, the four of us, my dad’s mother, and my wife’s parents. But our table was brightened by the unexpected addition of one of my little cousins, now not so little anymore and a full-fledged adult, and her partner, who we hadn’t yet been able to meet.
Her family wasn’t joining ours this year, as they were celebrating with another side-by-marriage. For a whole convoluted history of reasons that I won’t go into here, she and her partner wouldn’t be attending that family event, and, not wanting to spend the holiday alone, she called to see if she’d be welcome here. A two-hour bus-and-subway ride later, they were here. We hadn’t seen her in a very long time (though we talk more now via social media than we ever did before)—in fact, I don’t think I’d seen her in person since long before she came out to me, sometime in the past year or so. Besides us meeting her partner for the first time, this was the first time our grandmother would be meeting her partner.
Except her partner was to be called her “friend” and her “roommate.” I don’t even know if my grandmother knew, before tonight, that she had a roommate, that she existed at all. Some parts of our family are very good at not saying things, at practicing omission as a survival skill. I should know—I’ve been one of them. Race, mental health, sexuality—these are all flashpoints that are better left ignored. And if some family members’ attitudes are less than progressive, well, you know, that’s just how they were raised, they’re products of their times, it’s better to just not say anything. Right?
I don’t know. I’ve played trouble-maker and I’ve played bystander. I can understand the need for truth and debate as much as the need for equanimity and a semblance of normalcy, even if that’s just what it is, a semblance. I’m not advocating picking fights at family get-togethers. And yet… And yet.
I look to the day when my cousin and, perhaps one day, my cousin-in-law don’t have to pretend by omission at a family gathering in order not to ruffle feathers or upset someone. I know that just by writing this, even being as vague as I am, I’m going to upset some people, make some folks think that this isn’t my business or that I don’t know what I’m talking about. [My name—our name—is on this blog, after all.] To watch how happy my cousin was, to be here, with family, tonight, to see how much she’s grown, to watch her and her partner play with my girls—I am thankful for that. And I am thankful, and hopeful, that my girls will imbibe, over time, the most important lesson of these gatherings—that family is family, no matter our disagreements or differences (and there will be disagreements and differences, that’s part of family too), and all are welcome at our table.