It seems we’ve reached a point in my family’s evolution where weddings and funerals are the only time when everyone gets together.  And when I say everyone, I mean aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, dogs — the whole thing, either side of the family.  It used to be the holidays when we’d all gather, but since everybody’s moved away from Newport Beach (and some out of California) we’re lucky if we get together once a year.  Even then, the numbers are usually limited to the immediate family.

In March we got together over my grandmother’s memorial and it was a beautiful thing.  Everyone on my mom’s side of the family was there, and it was the kind of send out my grandmother would have appreciated; a sunny day, good vibes, kids running everywhere, a meal — not gourmet or set with fancy china, but served with the appropriate quantity of mayonnaise — a California Mission, and her ashes enclosed in a fancy linen sack on top of my grandfather’s rather plain urn (it helps to have known them to truly appreciate the poetic comedy of this spatial arrangement).

But this memorial wasn’t about just one day, it was about a week.  And beyond that, it was about establishing something lasting for the next generation.  When my mom’s parents were alive and all of us were still centrally located, for us grandchildren holiday get-togethers were a loud, crowded, fun affair.  My grandfather would sit down at the piano or organ and crank out the show tunes, his originals or whatever else we’d request, and we’d all sing along (or least pretend to) with an enthusiasm that rivaled anything on Broadway.

They were times centered around performance — his, ours, everyone — and they eventually came to a vaudevillian inspired head when we decided to establish a dinner prerequisite in the shape of a variety show.  The idea was simple; before dinner was served everyone (guests included) would perform some sort of act — singing, dancing, card tricks, what have you.  The upshot being; if you wanted to eat, you had to get on stage.

I’m not going to lie and say everything that went up was brilliant, because that was hardly the point.  But what did was inspired, creative and more often than not sidesplittingly funny.  What sticks with me most, however, is not what us kids did, but rather what the adults did — those creatures who inhabited that other table during mealtime.  There was something about seeing the adults step out of their usual adult space and into the realm of kid like, Monty Python-esque lunacy that tickled our ever expanding hearts and imaginations that resonates with us still.

Bringing back this tradition seemed like the most natural thing in the world and — for a new generation not yet fully schooled on the craziness of their elders — an absolute imperative.  The circumstances couldn’t have been more appropriate, and given the lack of performance anxiety in my family’s DNA, the mere suggestion of a such an evening brought on enthusiastic planning by all.

As to be expected, the show was an unqualified success.  The little ones got to see their grandparents — dressed as what can only be described as cowboy witches, and speaking in voices that — under most circumstances — would’ve scared the bejeezus out of them — perform a quixotic, shaggy dog piece called “spludge” (yeah, I know, the title is a bit sketchy).  My sisters and I followed that with a Shiva-esque take on a QVC beauty program, that brought on such fits of laughter from my mother that the grandkids — temporarily assuming the role of adult — threatened to kick her out of the room if she couldn’t control herself.  And the kids, well, they did everything from upside down singing chin faces, to dances, to Star Wars reenactments and even some tae kwon do.

The thing is, when we laugh together, perform for one another, applaud for one another, act fearlessly in front of one another, act the fool in front of one another, we strengthen not only ourselves, but each other as well.  We create an environment of solidarity where taking chances are championed and failure is irrelevant.  Everything works.  This is especially important to experience when you’re young, because fearlessness, I believe, is the essential ingredient to living life to its fullest.  And while I’m not saying having holiday variety shows is a way to ensure fearlessness in the young, for our family at least, it’s part of a great many things — love being the biggest — that contributed to our closeness and strength.  And that’s where fearlessness takes root.

Look around some time and take in all the people afraid to think for themselves or take risks out of fear of failure or what others might think, and more often than not you’ll see folks who have no support system.  Life is often a high wire act, and falling or failing is a whole lot less scary if you know there’s a net to catch you.  My family is that net and it’s got us through some pretty heavy times.

This is what our performances reminded me of and this is why I am so very grateful for my family.  A friend of mine who came with me to the memorial — and who is like a brother (yeah, he performed too) — told a friend about the trip — and in particular, our crazy show — and she said, “are there really families like that out there?”  To which he replied laughing, “yeah, I guess there are.”

There definitely are.

Epilogue

Now, given how much we all love each other and how much fun we have when we’re together, there might be the mistaken tendency to see this whole wedding/funeral get-together schedule as less than ideal, as the space in between these events is at best unpredictable and normally inconsistent.  And originally, I’ll admit, I was in that camp.  But since I’m a glass is half-full type of guy and I like to look for the positive in just about everything, I thought I’d reframe it and see what I came up with.

First, let me just say, it’s all about the math — I’ve got a big family.  Counting both sides there are… well, I don’t actually know how many there are, but there’s a lot  — and numerically speaking, that bodes well for future get-togethers under the current criteria.  Not being too cryptic about it, there are a lot of potential memorial services up ahead, and if that’s too heavy for you, well, there’s a lot of weddings as well.  For the record, I prefer weddings to memorials — there’s generally more dancing at the weddings — but if the memorials could be like my grandmother’s, and a celebration of a life, not the mourning of a death, well, then, what’s not to like about a memorial?

The bottom line to all of this — and the point if you’re searching for one and haven’t found it — is that family is something to be cherished and celebrated.  When you’re with your family, look into their faces and take in all the beauty, and know that no matter what happens, these are the people who will be with you when you really need someone.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve got two incredible sides to my family and that moves me to no end.

Holidays, memorials, weddings — no matter — whenever I can see everybody, it’s all good to me.

2 comments on “family reunions, one memorial at a time

  • It’s certainly true of family that “no matter what happens, these are the people who will be with you when you really need someone.” It would be lovely, wonderful, a dream come true, if this applied to my own family of origin, but it doesn’t. They have pretty consistently turned on me or abandoned me when I needed them most.

    My family of choice, however, is a different story. My deep and wide circle of excellent friends constitute my real family — they are the ones who have my back.

    This isn’t just a hollow makeshift to get me through this vale of tears. There is hope and futurity in it. I hear my credos or characteristic turns of phrase come out of my friends’ children’s mouths, and I feel like I have made my stake in the next generation. There is something to be said for memes over genes; the latter is a total crap shoot.

    Though I count my blessings, I know that having a family of origin full of people who love and cherish each other is an unparalleled gift from the gods. Some of my friends are creating them. More power to them — and to you.

  • I never take for granted how fortunate I am to have such a loving and tight family. I’m a sentimental guy and writing this was in many ways a valentine to all of them.

    But I agree, family is much more than blood, and you are blessed to have found family beyond that. I too, have such a family and it would seem odd to consider them as something separate. Family is family.

    Besides, how cool is it to have so many brothers and sisters, moms and dads.

    Thanks for sharing something so personal and important.

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