When we were growing up we had a 1978 Chevy Impala station wagon. It was pale yellow, huge, had rear wheel drive, and felt like sailing a boat over the road. We – my parents, brother, two sisters, and I – took many family road trips in it across the western United States. Those of us riding in the “way back” (the third row seat that faced backwards) often got carsick. There was no official nickname for the car, but I called it The Beast. I think at some point we all learned to drive in it. It was one of the first things, aside from going to church every Sunday and having the same wacky parents, that my siblings and I all experienced together.
I am the eldest of four children raised in a strict (yes, Mom, it was) Catholic home. My brother is two years younger than I am, and my sisters are eight and ten years younger. I helped take care of them when they were little – changed their diapers, rocked them, carried them around like baby dolls.
When I was fourteen, something happened on our mom’s side of the family. We didn’t understand it (in fact I don’t think we do even now), but ultimately our mom and our aunt stopped communicating, and we couldn’t see our four cousins anymore. It was a very sad thing, and I don’t even recall how it was explained to us then. Our mom taught us to love and care for each other. But that family rift, which lasted over two decades, taught us, perhaps subconsciously: We didn’t ever want that to happen to us.
Fast forward to my late twenties: By then my sisters were away at college, I was a single mom of two little boys, our brother lived 700 miles away, and we would all email each other and talk about our very different lives. One sister was studying forestry and living abroad in Mexico, the other one was studying sociology and video production in Portland, Oregon. I had recently gone through a painful divorce and both of my sons had special needs. My brother was living in Los Angeles sharing an apartment with our dad (our parents divorced at the same time I did). There was no texting (and I don’t think any of us had cell phones yet), so email was a good way to keep in touch. I printed and saved a lot of them.
Throughout our adulthood it’s unfortunately seldom that all four of us can be together at once, and we treasure those times. At some point we discovered that we all love wine and travel (probably because of spending many summer vacations in The Beast). Some of our favorite reunions involve wine tasting and talking about our latest trips. Two of us live in southern Oregon and the other two in Los Angeles. We get together whenever we can – baby showers, river rafting trips, graduations, weddings, our mother’s 60th birthday, and our father’s funeral. Good and bad, we are there for each other.
We all went down our own paths as far as religion and politics are concerned; somehow those issues usually don’t come up the few times we’re able to visit. We not only respect our differences (including careers and personalities), we embrace them because they are part of these individuals we love and cherish and couldn’t imagine not having in our lives. There is no passive-aggressive communication, no jealousy, no disparaging remarks. We might laugh a little about our shortcomings, or in mild exasperation – and concern – wonder why someone isn’t doing what we would do if we were in that situation. But from that sad family rift we learned to appreciate each other for who we are and to hold on no matter what.
Our father’s funeral was six years ago, and our mother and aunt both attended. At one point our aunt approached her and I don’t know what was said, but a moment later they were embracing and crying. I choked back a sob as I realized that through his death our father had reunited our family. We see our aunt, uncle, and cousins as often as we can, making up for lost time. And our mom and her sister have never been closer.