Monday, March 9, 2009

I hardly knew ye

My family was broken in half when my parents split up. I was two. Forever after, there was my mother's family, with whom I lived and interacted, and my father's, with whom contact was severely limited and closely monitored.

I didn't completely belong in either. I barely knew my father's side ... the myriad cousins and their children, only some of whom I saw occasionally, usually at funerals when we were all grown up and pretty much strangers.

And, after my mother died when I was 31, her side of the family seemed to turn into strangers as well. Not all of them, of course, but certainly most. I've spent entirely too much time trying to figure out why. Was it because I reminded them, not of my darling mother, but of the father they all despised? Was it because I don't hold the same view of the world they do, the same political and religious beliefs? Was it because I had been divorced, a failure as a wife and a Catholic? Like I said ... entirely too much time. I don't do that anymore.

The fact remained... the more years that passed, the less I saw or heard from them unless I was the one who made the overture. Years ago, I found that one cousin passed within a mile of my home several times a month on business and never called or stopped by. See what I mean?

Many years back, Leo, the son of my mother's brother, visited New Jersey from his home in California. I learned of the visit from a cousin I love and Howard and I drove south to visit. It was uncomfortable from the moment the door opened in response to our knock. They were gathered around the dining room table, looking over photo albums, sharing remembered times. One cousin, never a favorite of mine and vice versa, snickered audibly when I made a mistake and called the child of another by the wrong name. How could I be so obtuse as not to remember the names of my own family? No one asked about my life, my children, my work. I felt invisible except for the ridicule that seemed to emanate from the walls of the room in a house I'd hated and feared since I lived there as a small child. When next our California cousin visited, not many months ago, no one remembered to call to let me know he would be here.

Last week, I received an e-mail from that dear cousin who matters. She was sorry to tell me our California cousin had passed away. I knew from e-mails Leo had written to those on his list (me included, oddly) that he had a terminal cancer and, despite his willingness to fight hard, there would be no recovery. I read his obituary online and realized none of the names of survivors was familiar. I'd missed the last opportunity to see him and I know his children and grandchildren wouldn't even know my name.

They wouldn't know that his grandparents were mine, that his father was my mother's brother. That his parents gave solace to my mom when she was going through her painful divorce, the one that ultimately cost me all of them.

Now there is one less cousin in a very large family. May he rest in peace.

The family is still there, for the most part, but, without the glue that was my mother, it is still a fragmented memory.

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