Families Get Together

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Judy Ristity

Melodramas, comedies and horror/thrillers. They make excellent themes for novels, movies AND family reunions.

As Alex and I drove toward the San Jose del Cabo airport on December 27th, I worried about our upcoming first Ristity reunion given the extremely different political and religious views held by family members. On January 2nd when we headed back to Mexico, we had survived drama, comedy and a bit of horror during the reunion.

Of course, on December 27th when we took off from Cabo we didn’t know what was in store for us. The plane was packed with home-bound vacationers wearing straw hats, “I Love Cabo” tee shirts, and neon-red sunburns.  Alex looked like a bantamweight squeezed next to a would-be sumo wrestler.

Across the aisle, my seat-mate began talking. Her stories were amusing until we hit turbulence at 35,000 feet; then they weren’t, but this woman managed to talk non-stop through her clinched teeth. I stared at the “fasten seatbelt” sign while planning to escape “The Talker” by hiding in the toilet the moment the light went off, but I was trapped with her during the long, bumpy trip.

Ohio in December is cold. It’s windy; it’s bleak. The sun hides behind opaque clouds so it can’t peek at the shameless, naked trees. 

The rental car’s heater worked at full speed as we drove to the rental house which would accommodate ten of us who had travelled from afar. Alex and I arrived first. I quickly chose the only bedroom with an attached bathroom, but while I unpacked, guilt clung to me like a polyester sweater.

Soon Alex’s daughter and family arrived from Chicago; his son’s family from Virginia. And, as we greeted them, guilt immediately babbled. “I hope you don’t mind that we took this bedroom, but Alex and I use the bathroom a dozen times a night. And sometimes Alex has “restless legs” so we need a king size bed, but because our bedroom is next to the kitchen and we’re early risers, we’ll have coffee ready and waiting when you get up.”

“No problem”, they said in unison while nodding their heads. Wow. That was easy. Age does have benefits. My guilt melted like a Hershey Kiss left on the dashboard in August.

Ten people exploded to twenty-six on December 31st. Each gust of wind blew in another of Alex’s relatives: his brother, cousins and nephews. And kids: computer-game addicted teenagers and preschoolers who ran in circles the entire day blowing party horns some well-meaning adult had brought. My clinched jaws ached.

We boiled pasta, rolled meatballs, and tossed salad. In the meantime, we consumed dips whose recipes originated in the 1970s. Home-baked pies watched from the buffet waiting their turn. During this time, the horn-tooting children continued to run in circles. I wanted to escape, but outside the wind-driven rain pounded the windows demanding to join the party.

In the basement, a different type of storm raged. Alex’s fourteen-year-old grandson, who has autism, swung a large stick and made contact with his younger cousin, in an attempt to negotiate more computer time.  No blood was spilled, but his parents realized he was distressed by the non-stop stimulation so their family headed back to Chicago before midnight. As we waved at their receding car, I felt sad, as if their energy had been sucked from the house.

Later, sudden blackness. Silence. Party horns stopped tooting. Adults froze like Lot’s wife. But the clever teenagers took control. They immediately lit the room with their cellphones. For the first time that day, everyone gathered by the warm fireplace.

It took an electrical outage to silence the frantic blare of horns, screams demanding touchdowns, and high-octane laughter at bad jokes. Had we used noise to ignore an undercurrent of sorrow? Alex’s sister, Linda, wasn’t with us.

Linda is two years older than Alex. She is in the last stages of liver cancer and is bedridden. When we began arranging the reunion Linda was undergoing chemotherapy, but felt relatively strong. She planned to teach us to bake an old family dessert – Kolache, apricot filled turnovers. In November, the doctors determined the chemo wasn’t working and treatment was stopped. Since then, her condition has rapidly deteriorated.

Each adult visited Linda during the reunion. Her body tired quickly, but her heart maintained its kind spirit. While Alex and I sat by her bed, I commented on the beautiful gray and white scarf on her nightstand. “I knitted that a few years ago. Judy, would you like to have it?” When we left Linda I wore her hand-made scarf and felt wrapped within her warm generosity.

During the reunion Alex was quieter than usual. Was he mourning Linda, the older sister he hardly knew?

 La Paz is a long way from Ohio. In our twenty-two years here, we’ve vacationed in Europe, South America and Asia. Until recently, we rarely made the effort to visit our birth families. It took serious illness to boomerang us back home. A few years ago I began travelling to Boston to be with my elderly sister and brother. Both have since died.  Alex has flown to New Jersey, Nevada, California and now Ohio to visit his four terminally ill sisters. Linda is his last living sister.

We missed the good years when our siblings were healthy and robust.  We also avoided their dramas: family feuds, divorces, financial problems and troubled children.

Regrets? Oh, yes. We can’t change the past, but the future? The younger generation is available to us. We have the choice to become characters in the reality show that is their lives. Next year we may attend our Second Annual Family Reunion.

Judy Ristity finds humor in the ordinary, then looks again and discovers the poignant.