The split between my mother and father came like a boulder off the South Carolina mountains when I was 14, splintering the road ahead without warning.
My three sisters and I went with my mother, to New Orleans.
My father’s family, including 17 cousins, all but disappeared into the hills.
From infancy to adolescence, the cousinshad helped each other forge a strong sense of self, our collective identities rooted in Aunt Margie’s beehive hairdo and Uncle Kenny’s way-too-long blessings over large Sunday gatherings.
We had grown up side-by-side like best friends – only,family – hiding Easter eggs under Grandma’s porch and listening to Uncle James cackle as he taught us to ski behind his boat on Lake Greenwood.
Now suddenly all this was gone.
My mother’s smaller side of the family was still there for us.
But they only constituted half of me.
And there were no cousins.
When I got to be in my 20s and 30s, then, I started sending Christmas cards back home, to each of my father’s seven brothers and sisters and their families. I didn’t know what I’d get in return. My father’s siblings idolized their baby brother and vilified anybody who wounded him, including, I knew, my sisters and me. My sisters and I were guilty by association with our mother, who they never forgave for instigating divorce.
That didn’t keep me from trying. Christmas after Christmas, year after year, I sent long, handwritten notes about the wonderful things I was doing with my life, and, as I began to raise my own family, photographs.
I wanted to impress them. I wanted them back – not just for me. I wanted my children to know the bounty of a large extended family. I wanted them to have the same sense of belonging I once did, to gain a full understanding of who they are and from whence they came.
Apparently, the pain of my father’s pain was too much for his brothers and sisters, the tales surrounding his children and his ex-wife too big for one daughter to overcome.
During all those years, only two aunts ever responded to my cards and letters, both of them wives of my father’s siblings.
I tried to forgive and forget. I wrestled over continuing to send the Christmas greetings, especially after my father died. And then one July, two summers ago, one of the aunts who had responded to my cards, passed. I always said when Aunt Jane died, I was going back to South Carolina for the funeral, no matter what.
And so it was there, in the 100-degree July humidity of a Southern Methodist funeral service that the tide turned on the generations.
The aunts and uncles, many of whom had died along with both my mother and father, were no longer the story, I realized, as my sister and I walked arm-in-arm to the graveside ceremony where my aunt’s three children and our other cousins had gathered.
While the previous generation’s mythology wilted with the roses on my aunt’s mahogany casket, the eyes of the cousins lit up with recognition.
While the grudges and half-truths, the fabrications and folk tales of the adults became ashes to ashes, the cousins began to share a remembering of water skiing and Easter eggs, Uncle Kenny’s long blessings and Aunt Margie’s beehive – the stories of sweet innocence and childhood.
It’s been two years now since the funeral, and I have become bestfriends with Pam, the cousin I was closest to in age. From my home now in Ohio, I have rekindled relationships with several other cousins and become friends with their children via social media.
By DEBRA-LYNN B. HOOK