Found family: an epiphany

July 2, 2012

My family put the dys in dysfunction, and I knew it way too young. It was disappointing, perplexing, embarrassing, sad; and at times it’s been a source of tremendous pain.
That’s why visiting my hometown has always been a mixed bag.
My parents are now gone and so is most of their generation. It’s trite to say that I don’t have much in common with my remaining family, but it’s true. I mean, there aren’t many families with a uniformed neo-Nazi for an in-law. Or with a relative so into pills they nod off into their dinner plate with a plop. Or another who spreads decidedly malicious and untrue rumors about an in-law. The silent treatment for a real or imagined offense can go on for decades and in my family, the Sicilian vendetta’s been honed to a fine edge. An open heart stands no chance. You wonder why I stayed away?

You probably believe that family bonds, themselves, are something in common, and I’d like to believe that, too, but in our family, those bonds never took, for whatever reason. And believe me, I’ve speculated plenty about the reason.

As someone close to our family said the other day, “There are so many issues within the C— family that it makes you wonder.”

So it is certainly a joy to have a strong relationship with my nephew. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he and I have a bit of a mutual admiration society going on and, unbelievably, despite a 40-year age difference, we seem to have plenty in common. There’s no shortage of stimulating conversation between us and we share the same philosophy of life. Thank God. A haven of normalcy.
And of course, I adore his mother, my sister-in-love, who’s been in my life for more than 30 years and is a great and loving friend. But that’s about it for my hometown.
My parents never promoted strong relationships between our extended family, either. Consequently, as a kid I never got to know most of my cousins very well. I left our hometown at age 21 and only returned for brief visits, so we remained weddings-and-funerals cousins. And since I lived so far away, I attended few of either.
Mom would update me to some extent, but she’s been gone almost 13 years now, leaving a void of family information.
Oh? No siblings, you ask? I do have siblings. Two of them. Let’s just say they aren’t very communicative. There’s a story there and I’ll tell it one day. But not today.
This last visit to Rochester was an eye-opener in many ways, and one of them was a complete delight. I’ll gladly claim every laugh line and wrinkle I got from grinning ear to ear during this trip.
My nephew’s graduation party was small and included only one Cassara cousin and his wife, the ones closest to my sister-in-love. I hadn’t seen them since my father’s funeral in 2008 and before that, my mother’s service in 1999. So after hugs and greetings, we sat down over rigatoni, sausage and peppers and wine to catch up.
Cousin was a year behind me at school, but we were on very different paths. He and his siblings played music professionally as kids and I was on the college track. I never really knew his wife. Back then, none of us ever sat down and talked. So this rare conversation in later life was wide-ranging.
Let’s just say that we discovered that we’re both very different from our siblings, and for that matter, from our entire family.
Cousin is a smooth sax player, and still plays professionally and beautifully.  Like silk. Like butter. Like really, really sexy jazz. (Oh, you want his CD? Go HERE. )
Music’s his passion, but he made his living in development, and he’s done very well. He’s a kung fu grand master, studies in China, for God’s sake, and I was riveted when he talked about harnessing the power of qi. Like me, he’s fiercely independent and doesn’t hew easily to the party line.

His engaging wife’s a senior exec at a big company that has a household name. They’re both accomplished and smart, fun and funny, grounded and real. I don’t know when I’ve laughed as hard or been so delighted by a conversation.

As they talked, I felt a little spark of recognition. And then I saw it in his eyes, too. I started to smile, and then grinned. So did he. Could it be? Could we have actually found ourselves kindred spirits within our family?  And why hadn’t we seen this before?

He put his arm around me. 
“We never got to know each other –you left home so young,” he said squeezing my shoulders in a hug. “I thought it was a gutsy move. You were always such a free spirit.” He squeezed me and added, “I love you! In fact, you’re the only liberal I love!”
I laughed.   “I think we’re the only two normal Cassaras!”
He agreed. “The last two, for sure.”
The fact that family can be so different and still appreciate and love each other wouldn’t be much of an epiphany to most people. But if you knew my family, you’d understand just what an astounding realization it was. I knew I wouldn’t want to miss having them in my life and that we’d remain in touch the rest of our lives.

He is, after all, found family, and it’s all the richer for having rediscovered him and his wife later in life.

His father, my father’s youngest brother, (the zoot suiter I wrote about earlier) is the only one of my uncles still alive. I hadn’t seen him since my father’s funeral almost exactly four years ago. Now 89, he spends every Sunday afternoon at his son’s. “Come on over for a drink tomorrow,” cousin said during my last trip. “My father would love to see you.”
So we did. And if I thought talking with my cousin about our family was an eye-opener, talking with my uncle was an even bigger one.
But that’s a story for another day. Soon.
I was apprehensive about the May trip. I wasn’t sure what would happen with my nuclear family.  But my visit reinforced that the breach my siblings established between us is not surmountable and taught me that I’m more than ok with that.

It taught me that I have family. A loving, supportive husband, his brother, whom I adore and a cadre of girlfriends I consider family. My sister-in-love is there for me–and OMG how her older sister and I have connected!  and my nephew is a joy. I have a warm mother-figure in my life, too, so I’m lucky, indeed.

But this trip also gave me my cousin and that was a gift I’ll treasure from this day forward. 

Handsome Uncle Joe the former zoot-suiter, Cousin, and me and my laugh lines.
This photo just says it all. Sheer delight.

2 comments on “Found family: an epiphany
  1. Anonymous says:

    all your recent posts are right on.
    agree, agree, agree!! beth

  2. Thanks, Beth! We always think we’re the only ones…but maybe we’re not. A surprise.

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