My extended family is complicated. My father had seven siblings. He was the oldest. All those siblings (including my dad) went on to have a total of 36 children. I have 33 first cousins in my dad’s family. My mom had three siblings—she was child #2. She along with her siblings, had a total of 17 children. I have a total of 14 cousins in my mom’s family. First complication: I do not have a total of 47 first cousins. I have only (haha! I said ONLY) 40 first cousins. That is because 7 of these cousins are my double cousins, so I can only count them once. What are double cousins, you say? My mom and her sister married brothers—their children are what are called double cousins because we are doubly related!
I think it is special to have so many cousins. I have many fond memories of visiting and playing with cousins in my youth. All my family on both sides originated in the St. Louis area after immigrating to the United States. The emigration out of St. Louis started in the 50’s as families saw new opportunities out west in Phoenix, Arizona. One aunt moved to Ohio after marrying someone from there. As the years went by many of my cousins moved throughout the country as they became educated and found opportunities in new places.
Another interesting thing about my family is that the majority of my uncles were entrepreneurs. They started their own businesses, mostly related to the construction industry, They were building contractors, land developers, HVAC and sheet metal contractors, the patent holders for the machine that manufactures continuous seamless gutters, and the list goes on.
In the 1980s I worked for a company that made some organizational changes, such as moving a whole department back to the city of their headquarters. I was in that department. One day, the Human Resources Manager asked that all 10 of us from that department meet in the conference room and then proceeded to terminate our employment. I was an administrative assistant at the time.
As I reflect on this layoff today, this company treated us very well. They gave us a generous severance package considering none of us had work there over 18 months, they paid our health insurance for the next three months, and they sent everyone, down to the administrative assistant, to outplacement where a professional group helped us write resumes, taught us how to network and seek a new position. They even typed and mailed our cover letters and resumes to other businesses for us—this was before the day everyone had a computer at their fingertips.
I met with one of the career counselors. I had just started my masters program, and didn’t have an impressive resume. The counselor suggested I contact my family members and ask if there were any job openings at their companies where they were employed. Family complication #2: none of my relatives were ”employed.” They all owned their small businesses. They were not looking for administrative assistants, nor were they open to tuition reimbursement for my continuing education.
Complication #3: On one side of my family there was a huge rift. You know, they say don’t discuss politics or religion in polite company. Well, our family split over religion. Some of the family members left the religion they were in, and decided to become part of a very different set of beliefs. Words were not kind between some of the siblings, and a rift was formed. One half of the family did not spend time with or get to know the other side of the family. We grew up knowing we had cousins, but not knowing them. Sometimes we met at a family funeral.
As we got older, we realized we are living with the hurts of our parents’ past, not our hurts. Some of the cousins started connecting, maybe at a funeral, maybe on Facebook. We got to know each other. We liked each other. Although our parents may have had different religions, they behaved similarly, and our shared stories were similar. We found out that we really like these cousins. We don’t have to agree on religion. Interestingly enough, both sides of the family, although having very different beliefs, are both very strong religious folks.
A couple years ago I tried to pull together a family reunion. I gave the families only a few months notice. It was at my home, and we have plenty of room for a lot of people to picnic, swim, paddle boat around a small lake, and just sit around the various decks and patios to visit and reacquaint with each other. Not many came, but those who did had a marvelous time. We told stories about our childhood, our memories of our shared grandparents, and compared notes to find our parents were very similar in many ways. All our parents were hard workers, and loved their children dearly. We all grew up to be hard working respectful adults. We all missed having the connections to share our lives together.
This past week I was on vacation in a city where I have many cousins. Some I knew well in my childhood because they lived near me and our parents were close. Some were small children when I was in high school and college, and now they are my contemporaries. Some were from the family that was on the other side of the rift. We all got together. We loved and enjoyed each other’s company. We promised not to go long periods without being in contact, and hopefully, meeting up again. I got to attend a party that one family of cousins had. Their children were cousins who all grew up together. Now their grandchildren were getting to know their 2nd cousins. There were 63 family members at this party. The children ran around this large yard without a care in the world. Their parents, all first cousins, and their spouses, sat around the tables visiting and reminiscing about their adventures together as children, and sharing their lives today.
I wish our family had done this instead of what happened. That is history. Why do we study history? So we don’t repeat the negative parts. I loved watching this family of siblings, 1st cousins, and 2nd cousins spending a whole day together loving on each other.
None of my children’s first cousins live anywhere near them. That is such a shame. We live in a mobile society. It makes me sad to think they have missed out on these type of gatherings. It is never too late to reconnect. I am in my late 60’s. I have lost two cousins and one sibling to death. It is never too late to reunite, to get to know, and to love each other. I am so grateful that in the last four years of travel with my husband, that when we go through a community where my relatives may live, we try to meet up with them. I have done this in Arizona, Utah, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia. I may have not know all my family very well, but I am getting to know them now. I am beginning to understand that we all have challenges in our lives, and we can share and care for each other. I am also beginning to understand that my family tree is a huge, beautiful tree, filled with amazing people. I can’t live with regrets for things in the past, but I can chose to make our days more meaningful together.
Why do families do this? Why do parents and children become estranged? Why do siblings become estranged? We all have expectations of others that many times do not match our beliefs. Unless these folks are harmful to each other, why do we just write them off? I will say there are times one must break away, especially if there is destructive behavior that could physically harm a family member, but I’m not talking about that. Think about the people we work with, the people in our neighborhood, the people in our churches. Sometimes we treat them better than we treat our own families.
How is that rift repaired? I believe the future generations need to reach out to each other. How do we make friends? We find the things we have in common. We don’t dwell on the things that we don’t have in common. We find a common ground and we build on that. As I mentioned in a previous blog on the diversity training I did a few weeks ago, everyone is unique. We don’t fit in anyone’s box. Not everyone is going to be best buddies, but we can appreciate and love each person for who they are.
Do you have family members you wish you knew better? Reach out to them. Friend them on Facebook. Ask them to meet you for lunch. Have a big party and invite them. Send them a note. Don’t talk about the things that divide, but the things that connect. Families have a history. Find out about that history. It is really interesting to hear the different perspectives of the family history. We all have our own perspective of the same event. Be open minded and love one another. We won’t be here forever. It’s time to reach out in love.