To my sweet cousins……Thank you sooooo much for such creative and thoughtful gifts. I’m so very proud of you both. You turned into such lovely ladies. It was a true pleasure. Love Derek
I exchange a glance with my sister. “Guys don’t talk like that,” I say affectionately. I can see my sister shares the full emotions I am experiencing after such a precious night. I can still feel my cousin’s arms around me in a tight and genuine hug and hear his deep voice sharing story after story of his board sport adventures and injuries. Our week of reconnecting with our cousin has left us warm, fuzzy, and fulfilled.
Though I had actively missed him for 20 years, periodically trying to reconnect, and vainly trying to gain his contact information for the last year and a half, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine he would be so wonderful. The little information I had been getting suggested he would be uncommunicative. My experience with men in general prepared me that he would likely be polite but indifferent. More recent information claimed he might even be difficult to be around.
What we found instead was openness, tenderness, sentimentality, gratitude, and admiration.
I have 3 cousins. When my friends spoke of activities and friendships with their cousins, all I had to cling to was annual Christmas eve with the three boys on my mom’s side. The older two were brothers five and seven years older than I, of whom I have no memories beyond Christmas eve and attending their weddings. Derek, however, the son of my mom’s twin brother, is three years older than I and close enough that we spent some time playing together. I watched him skateboard in front of our grandma’s house. He would pack me and my sister into the Powerwheels Jeep and drive us into the open field, off to war. I snooped his Garbage Pail Kids tucked in a drawer in the “on flimits” room (my misunderstanding of Grandma’s instructions that the room was off-limits). I groaned at his display of snorting yogurt up his nose and making it come out his mouth.
I was disappointed when he moved to California with his mother when he was 12 and I was 9. That was a very difficult year for my family, so life superseded that disappointment, but I missed him ever after, seeing him only twice and longing for that friendship back.
In my teenage pen pal years, I asked my mom to ask my uncle if Derek would write to me and was told that Derek probably wouldn’t, that he wasn’t a communicator. He never did call. He talked to my mom on the phone a couple of times in his absence, and I heard through the grapevine of his plastic surgery due to a surf boarding accident. I never really expected to have much of a relationship with him, but I hoped to someday be in touch again.
In June 2016, I received a random call from Derek’s mother. She had found my phone number in Derek’s things, which means he got it from his dad at some point (and never called me, BTW). I knew they had moved to my area some time before. After catching up for over an hour, she invited me to call back when Derek was home. I procrastinated for 6 months only to then find the number disconnected.
Thus began the attempt to reunite the family. After the passing of my grandmother in 2003 and then my mother in 2006, that side of the family slid further apart. Family Christmas eve became “sometime in the general vicinity of Christmas” and then non-existent. I heard rumors that there were hard feelings toward my part of the family for reasons that were inaccurate, and I anxiously sorted it out to bring our family back together for another dinner. The last one. Now as I called Derek’s dad I left a voice message every weekend for weeks to no avail.
A call to my other uncle produced a polite but pinched conversation where he seemed open to the possibility of getting the family back together, but he was very hesitant to talk to me about family history and stories.
Another year passed until my sister and I decided we were going to put us back together and invite the family over for a gathering. I started by mailing Christmas cards to my two uncles and two eldest cousins. I was shocked when my mom’s older brother sent me a card back! His handwritten note sounded glad to reconnect and he invited us for dinner sometime. When I called him he sounded genuinely glad to hear from me and open to getting together. He was waiting for an appointment to take place before planning anything, so I decided to wait until after that date to pursue things further.
In the meantime, the card sent to my mom’s twin was returned in the mail, so I took it and showed up at his house. I had tried this once before and left a note, only to not get any response, but this time I was successful. He was surprised but very happy to see me. We visited for 2 1/2 hours and had such a genuine and invested conversation. I learned several new and hard things about my family that helped me understand better why we hadn’t kept in touch. I also saw the life attitudes held by my uncles that make relationships difficult. I felt welcomed and left with contact information for my cousin Derek.
I continued to wait until after the date of my uncle’s appointment and started calling him to check in. I was also contacting my oldest cousin’s wife, who I used to be friendly with and babysit their girls, hoping to be connected with the other cousin, but got no response. Still I didn’t call Derek, partly because nothing else was coming together and partly because I just don’t like to talk on the phone and I was shy.
Then came an email from Derek’s dad saying that Derek would be moving back to California so if I wanted to see him “do it now”. I had already resolved to call him that very night because I knew I had already waited too long.
Finally, I called the number, heard his name and left a message. A text returned an unexpectedly lengthy and open response. Finally that night I talked to him for some time, caught up, and made plans for my sister and i to visit the next day!
From what I had been told all these years, I expected some kind of brooding wisp of a person lost in his own interests. What I found instead was a warm welcome, attentive listening, animated stories, and eye contact. His mom was also there and had worked as a nurse alongside my grandmother and had precious memories to share about her and my grandfather, who I never met. My four-year-old nephew was warmly nurtured as his little body wiggled all over the living room.
We stayed until after midnight catching up on 20 years worth of life – my sister and my entire adulthood and then some. When it was time to leave, like a gentleman Derek walked us outside to the car. We chatted openly for a few more minutes and then received warm sentiments and tight hugs. I told him I love him and he said it to me. Beside my nephew, no one has said that to me in a long time.
The following day I was floating on Cloud 9, exchanging texts with my cousin and making a phone date for that evening. As I was waiting for my nephew and my nanny charge to fall asleep for nap, I checked my voicemail and discovered a message from my older uncle. I had left several messages to check in about his appointment and didn’t have a log of his call. His voice message was not promising.
As soon as the kids were asleep I gave him a call. I told him I had reconnected with Derek and had recently visited my other uncle. He quickly cut to the chase. He wanted to express that he thought we would never be close. The best we could expect would be Christmas cards. We had nothing in common. The truth of the matter is, he explained as I asked questions, that he continues to be upset about things my mom did, from being the “chosen child” to becoming a Baptist despite her Catholic upbringing, to how she handled Grandma’s funeral service. It all revolves around grudges he holds toward my parents about things I know are not true. I give him the benefit of admitting that I was not present for all of his relationship with my mother, his sister, but I sincerely believe his perception of my mom is completely inaccurate. She loved him. She was a very genuine and transparent person and also selfless. Unless she was a different person around him than I ever saw. Also I am 1000% certain his anger toward my dad is contrived. I now believe these attitudes are due to some childhood trauma and I feel deep compassion for that.
He was polite, but direct and told me he is not interested in a family reunion and would not come, he is not interested in hearing about my nephew (which is mostly what my life is about right now) and is not interested in talking about family history and sharing “family secrets”.
I did tell him that he is always welcome with us should he change his mind. After 10 years of pulling teeth trying to get the family together, there is some relief to this measure of closure. Nonetheless I was bummed for the rest of the day, feeling like I had just been broken up with. The blessing in it was being able to talk to Derek on the phone that evening and share my disappointment. The payoff was in hearing him sympathize with me, rally that we would stay in touch with each other, and as for our uncle, it was his loss.
If only we had connected when they first moved back to Washington. If only I had called a year and a half ago! If only I had called immediately after I got his number again! I would have gone with him back to Grandma’s property to reminisce. I would have shown him around Washington. I would have invited him to my Elf party.
Instead, with one week to moving day, time was tight. My sister and I started putting together road trip care packages for him and his mom, who would be driving separately. The first baskets I bought were too small and had to be replaced with ones at least double the size! My sister made her very popular chocolate chip cookies. I made khrushiki, a Polish donut our grandmother used to make. We filled the baskets with all manner of snacks and helpful items, but our favorites were the treats inspired by Grandma – chocolate covered cherries, strawberry hard candies, circus peanuts, and Grandma’s original nut bowl with the nutcrackers. And Garbage Pail Kids.
Timing was tight and Derek, his mom, and Derek’s sister who came to help, were in over their heads with packing, but we made a plan to visit one last time. We were willing to come help or to drop off the baskets and leave, but they made time for us. We brought them Kentucky Fried Chicken – another Grandma memory – and ended up staying for three hours. When the baskets were revealed, my sister and I were not disappointed. In accordance with Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages, both of us show love best by giving gifts. Pouring our hearts into these baskets was our way of pouring love on these long-lost family members. The time they gave us visiting, listening, and exclaiming over all the details of the baskets filled our love tanks. She and I both receive love through spending quality time, so their eager hospitality spoke volumes to us.
I knew they were anticipating being up all night to pack up and I was prepared to leave at that point, but when they offered ice cream to my nephew, I figured they were not in a hurry to kick us out, so I asked if they would like to look at family photos. When I was preparing to move out of my dad’s house about a year ago, I had the time to sort though all our keepsakes, photos and papers, and neatly organized the extended family memories into a tub, which I had brought along.
Though I’ve always been closer to my dad’s family, and even live with them now, I always proudly identified with the Polish heritage I received from my mom. Without the relationships to back it up, my search for family history and memories had reached a dead end. Even Ancestry.com, AncestryDNA, and paying a researcher has not yielded the information I crave. After learning background about that side of the family, I understand better why, but have still felt a void left by that side of the family. Sitting with my maternal cousin and his mother, who knew and loved my family, and hearing them appreciate the photos I hold so dear was an affirmation I have been starving for. No one else can or will treasure those memories the way I do. My private revelry is finally shared.
The hugs after that were tighter and longer as we bid our goodbyes. Derek walked us out again and spent another 20 minutes regaling us with stories of his “troubled” days and how God had showed up in his life. I said, “you must be important”. He sure is important to me.
Now I wait as he drives 1200 miles to his new/old home. My sister and I will be visiting him in July, if everything goes as planned. I can hardly wait!