The Luck of a Big Family
Yesterday afternoon, at the family wedding, I hugged a cousin I hadn’t seen since 2012. “It’s so good to see you,” she said.
“You too. It’s been much too long.”
The cousin hugs Victoria before I can even introduce her as my wife. The mutual warmth is sudden and genuine.
In 2013, after the umpteenth article had appeared in the national media detailing my sins, this cousin had sent me a blistering email, telling me I had embarrassed the entire family. I had been raised to be better. How could I do this to my loved ones? How could I disgrace the living and the dead? I didn’t dare speak to her for years, filled with shame. She had said what others only thought. Most were too gentle or too worried to let me have both barrels of indignation, but this cousin was fed up. She was the designated truth-dispenser, and boy, did she dispense it.
Time heals. My grandmother of blessed memory forbade grudges. Fleeting anger was permissible, but to let another’s conduct, or a cousin’s deplorable beliefs, cause you to shun them was an Unacceptable Violation of the Code of Eternal Return. The Prodigal Son or Wayward Daughter must always be welcomed home. This cousin’s hug was the last one for which I had waited patiently. The last crack in the Great Rift, sealed shut just after 3:00PM yesterday.
Later, at the reception, I dance with the mother of the groom. She divorced my first cousin nearly 20 years ago. I have rarely seen her since. A devout Christian who married into a family of non-believers, Maggie and my cousin were not blessed with the easiest of separations. Some bitterness lingers. I remember that over 35 years ago, when Maggie was a young bride, and yesterday’s groom nowhere close to being born, she who had married my cousin came up to me one Easter.
I was fresh out of the hospital, brain-injured and suicidal. Many family members told me they were worried about me. On the same ranch lawn on which we danced last night, Maggie told me that she was lifting me up in prayer every day, hedging me in with Divine Protection. “You have a Great Romance with Jesus,” she had said, using a very Not Our Kind of People phrase that nonetheless appealed to a love-sick brain-damaged 19-year-old; “He will not drop you. And I will not let you forget for a second how much you are loved.” I had burst into tears.
Maggie is 62 now, a grandmother three times over, with more on the way if the hopes and intentions of the newlyweds are to be believed, and biology is kind. She dances with Victoria and me, the three of us hopping along, dutifully but happily, to a Nelly song that evidently reminds young Millennials of their childhood. “It’s wonderful to see you,” I half-shout in her ear. Maggie grins broadly, side-hugs me on the dance floor. “Family is still family,” she says.
A few feet away, the father of the groom dances with his stepdaughters, children of his second wife’s first marriage -- young women we all adore, brought into the clan only because of a divorce. My cousin and Maggie rarely speak, but they move near each other with ease, bitterness not permanently discarded, but rather hung like an unneeded jacket on the back of a chair, ready to be worn again when it is time to leave, but too confining when the night is warm, and the joy is palpable. Not here. Not now.
Victoria and I leave the party late and drive the 90 minutes home to my mother’s house in Carmel. “I love your big family,” my wife says. “I love that I am a part of it now.”
I am 20 years older than my wife. I add gently what might be unnecessary, but has the benefit of being true. “It is your family always now, even when I’m gone.” What is brought in through marriage isn’t severed by a single death.
Some of what makes a big family is luck, it is true. Some of it is that we are blessed beyond all measure to have had a ranch to share for 137 years. A great deal of it is that we refuse, despite all provocation, to let those who betray and disappoint us slip too far away. Your private wounds may be real, but if you can bear it, we need you to come home for the happy times, to dance with and embrace those who have known you all your life, to do your part as an elder in bestowing on the young a fierce sense of how much it is they are treasured, offering them a reminder of how much they are hedged in by the love and by the constant, total absolution of the living, the dead, and the yet-to-come.