First Family

One of the most durable and endearing images of my father was his figure bent over our den desk, writing weekly letters to his three sisters. Trinidad natives, they moved to the United States as young adults, losing closeness on a small island to gradual separation in a larger land.

Distance, however, was only in miles. Their bond remained firm, fueled by faithful correspondence. Offspring of this quartet dropped the ball. In October, for the very first time in our lives, all six of us got together.

For me as an only child, this gathering of kin was a population explosion. I was suddenly surrounded by cousins who had known my father and mother, who remembered me as a child and the house where I lived. My husband is one of nine siblings and will never run out of people with shared memories. Now that my parents are gone, it is only these five people who can remember with me.

Small in number, we are diverse in experience and accents. There are the West Indian rhythms of my cousin from Barbados, the lingering vowels of my cousin from Mississippi, the barely discernible Tulsan (after twenty years in Rome) of my cousin the priest, and the languid cadence of our two Tarheel hosts who, when they were children, I could barely comprehend. I, of course, talk regular.

Our lives periodically intersected when we were young, but never all at once. Later we were reduced to Christmas cards, reporting marriages, births, and the adventures of our children. As we peeled off various planes in Durham, clutching old photographs, we had a lot of catching up to do. Primarily, reestablishing acquaintance. I think we exceeded that goal. Four days were filled with a palpable sense of recovery, discovery, and exhilaration. There was special joy, if poignant nostalgia for me, hearing my cousin from Barbados. In the timbre of his voice, in his phrasing, came eerie echoes of my father. For a brief time, miraculously, I heard Dad again. Ours was not the generation, sad to say, able to capture voices against their inevitable silence. The common audiocassette was a long way off. But five people remembered him well. The impact of this brought into sharp focus the realization that they, in fact, are my first family.

When we speak of family, as adults, we generally refer to the traditional model of spouse and children. It struck me in North Carolina that this concept is flawed. Before we marry, before there are children, a family is already in place.

Reference to my father strikes no chord with my children, who never knew him. With my cousins, everyone recalls Dad and has anecdotes to tell. But we got so busy with our second families we more or less forgot our first. Our parents never did.

During reunion (a wistful misnomer – we’d never convened before), there were many photo ops. Necklaced with cameras still and motion, I had mixed results. A camcorder novice, my film resembles one of those art house movies where a skilled director deliberately shoots like an amateur to achieve verisimilitude. I achieved this unintentionally. My homespun product lurches here, falls out of focus there, but captures moving images, the visual record I lack for my father. I dislike looking at life through a lens; I’d rather participate than photograph. But memory fades, film does not. In every kind of disaster, television shows us the same scenario. Victims of fire, floods, and earthquakes do not risk life and limb to rescue the Ming vase. They frantically grab what is truly irreplaceable: pictures of family and days gone by.

Incrementally, some of the younger generation arrived, my cousins’ children. Kin to me, they were strangers. It was disturbing to realize we could pass one another on the street, family blood coursing through our veins, and not recognize our connection. A far cry from the insularity of our island predecessors, we live in a mobile society that we rather enjoy. The downside is we grow up and away and apart.

We began our last day with Mass, celebrated by our priest. With another cousin I was a lector, the rest brought up the gifts. Front pews were filled with extended family members, spouses, children, children’s children. From my vantage point in the sanctuary, this only child basked in the unique experience of having, under one roof, family as far as I could see.

By

B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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