Unfamiliar and Far, but Still Family

Courtesy of Amanda Robbins

By Amanda Robbins

My family is anything but stable. My parents were divorced when I was four, my mom hasn’t talked to my aunt since I was in high school, one of my cousins hasn’t talked to his parents in years and I refuse to talk to my older brothers. The only other family member (other than my mom) who I actually cared about was my cousin Geoff.

The Lake clan from which I am descended has been a very typical East Coast family since before America was even a country. Sometime in the ’70s, my aunt moved to the bleak desert of Southern California and my mom followed. Geoff, my brother and I were raised here, over 2,000 miles away from the other half of our family.  Though my mom pestered me to add my other cousins on Facebook or pick up the phone and call my uncle, I never saw the point. I didn’t know them.

Then this summer afforded me the terrifying opportunity to go get to know them — Geoff was getting married in Maine.

The day Hurricane Irene hit was the same day I was supposed to fly into Boston. My flight was cancelled and rescheduled to land in Rhode Island on September 1.  It’s as if the weather knew I was hesitant to go and wanted to make me even more uncomfortable. I kept telling myself it was for Geoff and that I couldn’t let my fear of my own family keep me from celebrating his wedding.

On the first full day on the East Coast, I woke up to light filtering in through the hurricane-ravaged branches of my uncle’s yard. The air was coastal but even my sleep-dulled senses knew it was the Atlantic lapping the distant shore. Rhode Island seemed no more than a quiet copse of trees that had been tussled by Irene, but it was lovely.

We met with my cousin Beth for lunch in a restaurant on an ancient, brick building-lined street.  As I listened to the family talk, I felt like an observer. Their topics of conversation were so different — the fancy daycare my cousin’s kids went to, the back-up generator, their thankfully-unflooded basement levels … when I expressed my fear of hurricanes and wicked winters, they were surprised — “But you live where there are earthquakes, I’d much prefer a snowstorm to that,” Beth said. How could I honestly be related to someone who would choose snow over the occasional earthquake?

And then I realized — Beth looked like Geoff … who looked like my brother who looked like my mom who looked like her brother and her sister … and I didn’t look like any of them. They have piercing blue eyes. I have almond-shaped green eyes. They have soft wavy hair. I have a head full of corkscrew curls. I had a moment.  And by moment, I mean I was on the phone crying to my mom the second I could catch more than 10 minutes alone.

“Were they being snide?  But don’t you like Beth?” my mom asked over the phone.

No they weren’t, yes I did.  But for some reason, my inability to jive with them or look related to them brought my family issues to the surface and ignited them. I wanted to be at home where I would be meeting in a restaurant on a palm tree-lined, desert boulevard talking about the things us West Coast folk talked about. I wanted to be surrounded by friends, not by these ersatz relatives. But they were so nice ….

I hung my hope on Maine.  There I would see Geoff. I’d be able to escape the staggering weight of my shocking lack of familial instincts.

I slept in the car, waking up occasionally to see pieces of the shockingly-beautiful eastern seaboard, dense walls of forest and peeks of lakes or rivers bubbling past. We arrived at the resort my cousin was getting married at and I fell in love. It was rustic, authentic, bohemian, perfect.  It overlooked a lake surrounded by mountains covered in evergreens. My uncle and his wife found things to disapprove of. My previous heartbreak deepened. How could I be related to people who thought this was anything but amazing?

Geoff’s ceremony was led by one of his oldest and dearest friends. The sermon, delivered with the hazy lake and golden sunlight as a backdrop, was about family — building your own out of the people you meet, loving unconditionally, appreciating your own blood relatives and building a world for yourself out of everyone given to you.

Over the next few days of my cousin’s perfect wedding weekend and countless hours of conversation, my heartbreak subsided. I stopped missing my friends and saw what I had been missing clearly — that bond that exists regardless of wanting it, that love that comes from nowhere for no reason, that celebration of genetics that a family provides.

During a quiet moment with Beth, I sat with one of her sons in my lap as he focused intently on his stuffed kitty.

“I remember when this one was born,” I said, squeezing him a little. The second I had seen his newborn face on Facebook, I melted. The second I saw him and his baby brother in person, I absolutely died.

“I remember when you were born,” she said.

And for some reason, I was struck. I grew up feeling like I was a post-family person. All I needed was my mom and the pseudo-family I built myself. I felt unknown, just as they were unknown to me, and I kind of liked that. But she remembered the day I was born.

I was not unknown, I was not post-family. I was a Lake, not a bird flying over it. When I boarded my plane, Los Angeles-bound, I found myself missing them already.