"See the light in others . . . and treat them as if that is all you see." ~ Dr. Wayne Dyer
Any day now . . . any minute . . . my oldest daughter will give birth to her third child . . . my third grandchild. We don't know exactly who this child will be yet. We're not even sure if it's a boy or a girl. Collectively, we have a lot of conjecture, a lot of hopes, a lot of probablies . . . But the absolute certainty is that this child . . . along with its older sister and brother . . . represents a legacy of love. He or she will be adored . . . safe . . . allowed the freedom to grow and thrive . . . with all the hopes and dreams of a family hanging on their every smile, every heartsong, every unique and God given gift they bring to this world. Those of us who have fought hardest for these simple things -- the way things should be -- feel the profoundest joy . . . and that is reflected in the words of this memory about a family come full circle . .
My father's brother, with his wife and a younger cousin, were headed to the ocean at Daytona Beach. Maybe we would hit the mountains in East Tennessee on the way . . . maybe Disney World . . . with visits to various and distant relatives in between. But for sure to the Atlantic Ocean. And this was the hook for me. I had never traveled far outside my little world, and an ocean sounded so BIG. I had cut my teeth on Great Lakes . . . But an ocean called to me.
Just over the Georgia border and heading into Florida, we took a detour just outside of Jacksonville. My father's cousin lived in a double wide trailer on a little section of land with his wife and children. I did the math . . . He would be my second cousin, and his children, my third . . . I was reticent to meet them -- as is my way -- and impatient for my ocean. But the first ten minutes alone of the spontaneous visit left a lifetime of impression and thoughts of the mythic ocean would recede into the background for a minute.
There were five of them -- my third cousins -- all raven haired and politely lined up to meet us. The oldest was nineteen, a tall, lean boy with flowing hair that touched is shoulders, and glasses that added to his likability. In a slight Southern drawl, he called me honey without a trace of flirtation, just as he gently addressed all of his younger siblings. Two teenage girls each held the hand of a younger sibling, a stout, rambunctious little girl who was nine -- I could imagine her someday in the easy grace of her older sisters -- and a seven year old little boy, a more stoic, glass-less version of his older brother who peeked at me suspiciously from behind his sisters.
Their parents didn't seem phased by our impromptu visit. They immediately set about the business of including us in their dinner plans. I remember they had exactly seven matching dinner plates and had to scramble for a few more mismatched ones to throw in. They did this without a hint of resentment or self-consciousness. While one sister helped with dinner, the littlest girl enthusiastically pulled me out to the side yard -- watching for snakes -- to teach me high school football cheers that she had learned from her sisters. The other teenage sister was dragged along as a consultant and the older brother gently admonished that maybe I "didn't want to learn cheers" before he left for work in his father's pick-up truck. I didn't, but I had already been charmed into complacency.
Over the next several days, little tendrils of family ritual began to wrap themselves around my heart. I saw the father hold the mother's hand and call her pretty baby. I watched the mother pray the little ones to sleep in the evenings and absorbed the soft bantering laughter of sibings that insulated against the descending Florida dark. I memorized the way the father looked at his children when he asked about their day in the late afternoons with a shine of pride in his eyes -- like he wanted to memorize their faces. . . their answers . . . their joy. I stood outside of all of this and yet it became me . . . after all, this was a Southern family . . . my family . . . who held pieces of my past from before I was ever born. They asked about my father and I was evasive and non-committal . . . and I winced when they told me I looked just like my beautiful mother. I thought that they couldn't know the damage he left in the wake of his children . . . or the hurt that I carried because she only spoke to me in curt, angry imperatives or recrimination for all that she imagined I was or wasn't.
My memories of that time with that family are inordinately strong for thirty-seven year memories . . . I remember holding the littlest boy's hand -- our mutual reticence dissolved - as we fiercely laughed down giant water slides together . . . bouncing along shimmering country roads in a pick up truck on an early afternoon with a gentle, handsome boy cousin . . . drinking coffee together before the sun came up on the last day. But mostly I remember the way my father's cousin looked at his children. And I remember that as we pulled down the long drive on our way to the ocean that something sat heavy in my chest, traveled up into my throat, and ripped loose a piece of my soul that I never knew existed. I was embarrassed as I began to weep uncontrollably and inconsolably. My aunt and uncle and cousin stared at me, baffled and helpless. I didn't understand it and I couldn't explain it, but somehow I knew . . . JUST KNEW . . . that I had been born into the wrong family . . . and that I was headed in the wrong direction. It would take a whole ocean to drown the sorrow that I felt that day.
I never saw him again, but a few years after that, my heart broke wide open again when I heard that that gentle boy had died in a horrific car accident. . . And again after that when I heard that the parents had divorced . . . and later that the father had died of cancer.
I was heartbroken and shattered and it took me many more years to understand that ALL families are broken. All families break. . . and that it wasn't a mistake for me to idealize that family . . . to borrow from their fleeting happiness . . . to adopt their enduring love. All of my life I've gathered pieces of life as I thought they should be and used them to show me a different way . . .
Beautiful things can come from broken-ness.
And so last month I gathered with my family on a mountaintop . . . my own imperfectly perfect and growing family . . . the one that I created . . . to celebrate Christmas and that enduring love. And I brought my little brother . . . or he brought me. He would have been five years old on the day I cried to belong to a different family that morning in the Florida heat. And if the family fairy had actually come down to grant me my wish, he's the reason I would have had to turn her down. He was waiting for me back in Michigan . . . and all the love that I could gather from the world was his from the day he was born two weeks before my eighth birthday.
And we give ourselves away.
One of the strongest lessons I've ever learned -- over and over -- is that we have a choice in who we become. We can cultivate our grandfather's musical talent . . . dress up our mother's eyes . . . celebrate a lineage of perseverance and integrity and love . . . We can easily take the finest things that we've come by and make them our own. But those of us who have fought hardest for these simple things -- the way things should be -- feel the profoundest joy . . . and that is reflected in the words of a memory of a family come full circle . . .
And so, too, it's reflected in our eyes . . . in the way we see each other.