One of the things I’ve always loved most about my family is our ability to fill a room- and I mean that with the utmost sincerity. Whether it was sitting around my parents’ dining room table to celebrate an anniversary, hanging out in the kitchen while assembling a birthday lasagna or one of the rare time we ventured out to a restaurant to commemorate an achievement- we filled each and every room. And you would think, based on the amount of laughter and noise and energy that spilled from that room that there was an army of us. But in actuality, we had a fairly small, yet consistent group. My parents, my brother and me, my maternal grandmother and grandfather, my paternal grandmother and grandfather, and my dad’s brother and his wife. That’s only 10 of us. There were others that floated in and out over the years, blessing our table- my uncle’s wife’s brother and his family, an uncle from out of state, a college roommate or two looking for a home cooked meal on a holiday. But for the most part, there was just the 10 of us.
What you might not have noticed among this motley crew, however, is that there were only 2 kids: my brother and me. That’s it. Let me put that in some context for you. My dad grew up in Brooklyn with 4 cousins who consistently attended family gatherings. My mother? She had 16 on her mother’s side alone! Her mother’s side. Throw in the 12 from her father’s side and that made 28 freaking cousins! I think the mystery has been solved as to why my parents packed up a U-haul and drove with my 9 month old brother cross country from New York to Los Angeles. To quote my mother, “Suddenly, L.A. didn’t seem too far away from home.”
But for me, it was simply my brother and me. I’m not complaining, of course. Aside from the typical brother-sister torture that went on, we got long quite well. To this day he’s one of my biggest supporters and I’m one of the biggest pains in his ass. See? Totally typical. But we had each other during those family gatherings. We could hide upstairs in Grandma’s bedroom and watch t.v. together. We could still play Marco Polo and Fish Out of Water in the pool. Hide and seek definitely lacked a certain amount of excitement when there was only one person to find and you were confined to one or two rooms away from the grown ups, but we mad do. He was my partner in crime and the one that commiserated with me when we had to listen to yet another telling of the day my 3 year old self threatened to beat up the little boy at the park when he yelled at my brother. It’s a cute story.. the first 32 times. Now it’s not so cute. Those are the times it would have been nice to have a cousin or 2 to hang out with or to share the unwanted spotlight, but it was all we knew and so we were content.
Most people I know are surprised I never had any cousins around- especially when they find out I actually have 3 uncles. One never married. One married but chose not to have kids. And the third.. well, he was in a league of his own. He married the craziest, funnest, most hysterical woman in the world. She was a Howard Stern-lovn’, Home Shopping Network guru. And together, she and my uncle had The Boys Back East.
Now let me begin by telling you that with The Boys Back East, came what I call a little Familial Mystique. What is Familial Mystique, you ask? It’s that mystery and intrigue that goes along with any family member who lives far away and you rarely see. The gaps of time between visits are significant enough that you missed out on most of the growth and development, but not enough to erase the wonderful memories you have of their previous visit. They are exceptionally taller than you pictured in your mind. Yet, at the same time, exactly how you remember them. But the best part about the Familial Mystique is the fact that this particular relative is like a storm that blows into town and out just as quickly. They bring “your cousins are in town” parties, a break from the norm, and visiting all the cool tourist attractions in town that you take for granted because you live here. And most importantly- they aren’t here enough to drive you insane! You always like them best because you really don’t know them very well. They’re like the circus- they roll through town bringing excitement and treats and grandeur. And then they go back home.
Recently on of Hubs’ cousins said to me, “It would be so cool if you guys lived near us.” “Uh, I don’t think so,” I responded. “If we lived near you you’d find out that I am not nearly as cool and fun as I make myself appear to be on Facebook and through email. You wouldn’t like me half as much if you had to see me on a consistent basis. Trust me.” We would be forced to navigate the treacherous paths of “my kid said something mean to your kid” or “your wife hurt my wife’s feelings” or “you didn’t come to my kids’ birthday but you went to our other cousin’s kid’s birthday.” No thanks. I like that you like me, and I like that I like you. A state line or two is what makes that possible.
The Boys Back East were the poster boys for Familial Mystique. They rolled into town with my aunt and uncle a handful of times in my life- a wedding here, a random summer vacation there, the rare “let’s get the hell away from this Upstate New York winter and go to California where it’s 70 degrees every day”. But when they came in? It was party time.
There are three things I remember most about the visits form The Boys Back East. First, you always had to fill the garage fridge with Budweiser- none of that imported crap. They were all-American boys. And they could pack those bottle away, trust me. I remember going to Vons or 7-Eleven with my dad and looking for the best deal on a case of Bud, stocking the fridge and still making an additional run or two while they were in town. I also remember those were the weeks we made a crap load of cash with our recycling.
The second thing I remember were the trips to the beach in my grandfather’s yellow VW bug. Cramming 3 large boys in that thing was no small feat. Throw me on one of their laps and my poor brother squeezed in the middle and I swear the 6 of us weighed more than the car itself. But we had to do it because no matter what season it was, The Boys Back East had to take a dip in the Pacific Ocean. I can remember so clearly sitting on the beach in a sweatshirt, wrapped up in my towel while those three clowns hauled ass down the beach straight into the 60 degree water. Their Irish white skin (courtesy of their mother) standing out like a beacon as the waves crashed over them and they jumped around hootn’ and hollerin’. The Pacific Ocean is colder than Frosty’s balls no matter what season it is, but in winter it’s unbearable. At least to us locals without a wetsuit. But they went in without fail every visit. And then they’d saunter out of the water and up the beach where they would proceed to tease me mercilessly for being such a “pussy.”
The third thing I remember most about The Boys Back East was the amount of laughter that came with every visit. You see those boys were as authentic as you can get. The proud sons of a New York cop. One grew up to be a fire fighter, one worked in finance and the other was a teacher. All good, honest working men. Good and honest, but man could they tell some dirty jokes. Us Californians are nothing if not politically correct, but it wasn’t a joke to them if it didn’t begin with “A rabbi, a priest and a blond with big boobs walked into a bar…” Good Lord I learned a lot of colorful words through their joke telling. And I have to admit, I laughed my ass off. We’re the home of affirmative action and cultural sensitivity, we shouldn’t laugh at those kinds of jokes, right? Well, for a few days every few years I tossed those chains of tolerance aside and laughed unabashedly at what can only be described as some of the most offensive and funny jokes I’d ever heard. That was just The Boys Back East, what can you say?
Their visits were rare, and deep meaningful conversations were not on the agenda. That’s what real life was for. This was vacation and real life would always be waiting for us, right where we left it, when they boarded the plane back to New York. They were my cousins. The only 3 cousins I had. I looked forward to those visits and I didn’t want anything heavy or serious. But sometimes life has a way of forcing its heavy way into your reality whether you want it or not. And 13 years ago, when the youngest Boy Back East was diagnosed with Leukemia, we were in the lab getting blood drawn the next day, hoping to be a match for a Stem Cell replacement procedure. As soon as we heard, we took action. He was our cousin. It was a given. It didn’t matter that I rarely saw them or that I hated Budweiser or that you couldn’t pay me enough to dip my pinky toe in the Pacific in winter time. That was irrelevant because blood is thicker than anything else- beer and ocean water included.
It turns out neither me nor my brother was a match. But someone was. And we all waited with baited breath for the procedure to be done. Then we held our breath as we watched to see if his body would accept or reject the transplant. Next we waited anxiously for him to recover from chemo and radiation and transplants and doctor visits. And recover he did- for a time. But as the years went on, he never fully got back to where he was before this all began. And after a 10 year battle post-transplant, he got his wings and took flight to be with the Lord. 10 years, 1 wife and 3 kids later.
It’s easy to ask how this could end like this. If the transplant was going to work and if he was going to battle for 10 long years how could he not come out victorious? We all love a good story about overcoming obstacles. But the truth is, he did overcome and he was victorious. Had he never found a match for his transplant, he never would have had 3 kids. He never would have known 10 years of love from his wife. He never would have had those years with his parents. And he never wold have made all the memories his brothers will hold dear for the rest of their lives.
It had been a long time since I’d seen this Boy from Back East. He was never quite well enough to travel again after his initial diagnosis. And the years got away from us and our family responsibilities grew and a thousand other excuses. But when his brothers came to visit there was always the hope of him at home- missing the visit but enjoying the pictures we sent back with them and the hope that maybe next time he’ll come too. But that “next time” never came.
It’s strange to think that the next time The Boys Back East visit we’ll buy the Budweiser, we’ll take all 9 kids between us to the beach no matter the weather and we’ll laugh and snort and blush at dirty jokes- well, I’ll blush at least; but there will only be 2 Boys Back East. No longer 3. The hope of one at home receiving pictures and making plans for “next time” will not be there.
My fairly small family got a little smaller last week. It won’t break us. It certainly won’t end us. We’ll still fill a room with laughter and joy. And the energy we exude will continue to be palpable. And there remains The 2 Boys Back East that will make the trek west every few years, shrouded in the Familial Mystique that makes their visits so special.
To The Boys Back East… This Bud’s for you.
That’s just my normal.