Monday, September 25, 2006

Family Matters

Yesterday was my uncle's 90th Birthday. His daughters had an open house with enough food to feed an army. And since my uncle's mother (my grandmother) was one of thirteen, there was, in fact, an army of cousins there.

We are fortunate that most of us live in the Bay Area and that we know not only our first cousins but our second cousins as well. In fact, my second cousin and I went through 12 years of Catholic school together. My mother has so many cousins, in fact, that while on a cruise to Alaska, she and my dad went to a bar in Skagway and happened to find one of my mother's cousins there--who was on a different ship. And Mom, as the primary Family Historian, was busy catching up with her cousins and introducing her me to people I knew of but hadn't seen for years.

DD#2, well on her way to becoming the Family Historian of her generation, was having a field day as well, trying to figure out how she was related to all these people she met. My cousins had pulled out pictures from the various decades of my uncle's life, including rare pictures of my grandmother and my great-grandparents. As my uncle's only sibling, my mother was in a couple of the photos as well. The visuals helped me explain some of the relationships, but raised a couple of questions.

"Why is the height of the palm trees so important?" DD#2 asked about one picture.

I looked at her in surprise. Could it be she has never been down Dolores Street, lined with now-stately palm trees? Time for a field trip! And I should take her to the house where her great-great-grandmother lived (which was "in the country" in 1906) as well as the house on Church Street that her great-grandparents bought and where her grandmother grew up.

My uncle's short-term memory is gone, but he can remember stuff that happened thirty years ago, especially if it's sports-related. And he knows what's going on in real time, so he still can enjoy watching his beloved Cal Bears in football and basketball. (He just can't tell you what the score was or who they played the next day.) His sense of humor is still intact.

"How are you?" I asked.

He heaved a huge sigh. "Still breathing," he answered.

His first cousin, also 90, was there.

"Hey," he told my mother (one of his "baby" cousins), "send me an e-mail! I just got a new address."

And, of course, there was talk of having another Family Picnic, a tradition that was tried for several years and then sort of died out. While I see my uncle and his daughters several times a year, I generally only see my second cousins at funerals. With each passing year, I realize how important celebrations become. They bind us together, all the generations, and give us roots and history.

How do people live without their family? I don't understand it. I'm glad I don't have to.