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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trying to Pick Up My Extended Family's Dropped Ball...

"I should've caught that!"
Whether it was the best Pan Con Bistec, as my cousin Bob claimed, or not, was irrelevant. What was important to me was that I was enjoying the Cuban steak sandwich with some of my closest cousins from Chicago, whom I had not seen in several years, our spouses, our children (nine in total) and my great aunt.

Last weekend, my cousins and their families came to town for a brief stop en route to other destinations; Key West and Bermuda.

On Saturday night, most of our extended family that lives in Miami (and an uncle from Orlando) got together with them at a relative’s house in West Miami-Dade.

Amidst, lechon asado, pork loin, camarones enchilados, congri, yuca, platanos maduro, tamales black beans, white rice, and beers, wine and single malt scotch, we reminisced, shared some laughs, and got caught up with our lives.

As night fell upon the gathering and my older cousin showed up after work, I couldn’t help but think how much I missed the days of past, when our family reunions were a yearly event.

It’s amazing how fast time passes us by.

One minute, I am in my mid-20’s and fighting with my younger brother over the bathroom in our hotel room, while getting ready for Bob’s wedding. Consequently, due to our bickering, we were late to my uncle’s house, where a caravan of cars, with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins was waiting for us to leave for the church (even as grown men, we got chewed out by our mom!). I’m sure, you’ve heard of the bride arriving fashionably late. Have you ever heard of the groomsmen? Leave it to the self-centered Cubans from Miami to arrive late for an Irish-Catholic wedding in Chicago! (Bob’s wife’s family is of Irish descent)

The next minute, I am in my late-40’s, am married, and have three small kids, while Bob has a college-bound daughter, a son in high school and another daughter going into 6th Grade and our children hardly know each other.

Time and distance has pulled us apart over the past twenty years. How sad. Nevertheless, making it worse, is that we, like many families in this busy, fast-paced, career oriented, not-enough-time-to-smell-the-roses world we live in, have allowed time and distance to separate us. How do we get so wrapped up in our individual lives that we allow lifelong relationships to suffer?

My mother’s side was a very large and close-knit family. It was an old fashion extended loving family, where everyone was involved with everyone else’s lives, took care of one another and good advice and guidance were at a beck and call. In fact, when my great uncle suffered a work-related accident and couldn't run his business, it was my grandfather (his brother-in-law) who dropped what he was doing, traveled to Chicago and kept the business afloat and until my uncle could get back to work after an extended period.

It all began with my great grandparents, both Spaniards, who met in Cuba (he was 25 and she was 15), and had ten children together (although two died young; including one as a baby and another in his 20’s due to illness).

As the children got older, my grandmother among them, they got married and started their own families. Soon the children’s children outnumbered the adults and some of those offspring (my mom), started having their own kids (me!).

After Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, most of the individual families started to immigrate to the United States. Then, several years later, my great grandparents left the island and came to the U.S. via Spain.

Although, spread throughout, some setting roots in Chicago, while others in New York, Orlando and Miami, they remained very close and my cousins (2nd removed) and I grew up getting together every year, usually during Christmas, summer, or both.

In fact, some of my fondest memories growing up are times spent with my cousins. I remember playing ping pong or dancing during family reunions, playing in the snow in Chicago, or, one time, throwing ice balls at cars and getting in trouble when we hit a car and the driver got out and knocked on my uncle’s door. Fortunately, my great grandmother was the only adult in the house and didn’t speak English!

There were also many long hot summer days swimming, diving, and running down the halls while knocking on doors at the Jefferson Hotel, in Miami Beach (before the area became known as South Beach), where they would stay every year. We once caused the evacuation of another hotel, The Poinciana, when my cousin Bob decided to set off the fire alarm during one of our ding-dong ditch games.

As we got older, while living in different parts of the country, we grew up together and, at least I, anxiously awaited all year to see them.

Some summers, my cousins would come to stay at our house.

I remember trying to keep up with an older cousin, who was training for the upcoming high school football season. He was a star linebacker and was in amazing shape. As he ran from one end of the street to the other, in front of my house, I would try to run next to him. He would leave me in his dust and I would catch up to him as he came back around heading the other way. I wanted to grow up to be just like him.

That year, summer of ’76, he and his older sister spent part of their vacation with my parents, grandparents, brother, and me. I recall my female cousin introducing me to the Beatles, which remain one of my favorite bands. That year was also the Summer Olympics, and my cousins got me caught up in their enthusiasm for the games, where a 14-year-old Romanian gymnast, named Nadia Comaneci, stole the show, and all America rooted for a young, athletic, pre-plastic surgery (and before he was trying to keep up with the Kardashians) decathlete, named Bruce Jenner.

Another summer, when I was already in high school, my cousins Bob, who is my age, and his younger sister stayed at our house for several weeks. We must have gone to every movie out in theatres that year (The Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields was the highlight for me!).

One night, I took Bob out with my high school friends and things got uggly.  Aside from Bob getting sick in the van, as we arrived at the roller skating rink, a couple of my friends ended up getting into some sort of fracas with some other guys, sometime during the night, and disappeared. We never found out what happened and Bob, a couple of other friends and I spent all night looking for the missing guys in our group.

It wasn’t until hours later, that one of those missing friends finally showed up to pick us up and take us home, that we found out the other guys were waiting to get bailed out of jail. Talk about a lasting impression!  God was definitely watching over us that night.

Several years later, when my older cousin, who had introduced me to the Beatles, was getting married (she was living in Miami by then), Bob’s sister was a bridesmaid and came to stay at our house.

She wanted to get some sun to get a little color for the wedding and I, in one of my brilliant moves, decided to take her to the beach in Ft. Lauderdale with some friends (not the jail inmates!), where we were in the sun from about 10:00 am until about 4:00 pm in the afternoon.

Mind you, she had been hibernating in the Chicago winter for months and was lily-white when she got here. To top it off, we were pouring the old Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil on ourselves, which was probably equivalent to pouring oil in a frying pan and simmering our skin, like sirloin steak. It wasn’t pretty! She swelled up like a puffer fish and was crying all night from the pain. Yeah, good times… It’s a wonder how they still talk to me.

Another crazy night with all my cousins, including my cousins from Orlando, we went to a bar in Coconut Grove, where we all had one too many Long Island Ice Teas. We were piled into my older cousin’s (former football star) boss’ station wagon, which was broken. The vehicle would not accelerate and so we had to all lean forward to help the car get up the ramp of the highway. We couldn’t stop laughing all the way home.

Somewhere on a side street, as we chugged along in the broken wagon, two of my cousins, decided to get onto the roof of the car as we drove (obviously, this is not a blog that I want my children to read until they have enough common sense not to want to do this with their friends or cousins!).

In between, I made several trips to Chicago and have many fond memories of our antics and good times with my cousins’ friends.

The point to all this, and forgive me for carrying on, is that as close as we once were (and I will not elaborate on my cousins on my father’s side of the family but the same can be said), after getting married and starting our own families, we all drifted apart.

Now, it seems that the only time we get together is for weddings and funerals, as our relatives get older and pass away, or once every several years, as we did last weekend.

As I reflect on what happened to that close-knit extended family of long ago, I can only conclude that we were held together by the love and commitment of our patriarch, my great grandfather. When he passed away, my great grandmother became the glue that kept us together for several years and then my grandmother stepped in, as the default matriarch, after my great grandmother passed away. In fact, most of our yearly reunions were held in my grandma’s house for many years.

However, when she died, shortly after I met my wife, our family slowly began to disintegrate. Nobody stepped into the leadership vacuum or was a galvanizing force in keeping our family together.

I will admit, it was my generation that dropped the ball. The first generation was getting too old and we never picked up the flag and carried it forward. Everyone went their own way, started their own family, and slowly lost touch.

On Sunday, before our Pan Con Bistec, my cousins and I discussed planning a reunion for the entire family with God's help; maybe renting a large house somewhere, where we can concentrate on getting reacquainted, sharing laughs and having our kids spend quality time and getting to know each other, as we use to in the old days.

Unfortunately, because of the gallop pace of juggling careers, jobs, children, the flood of information we are bombarded with daily and other responsibilities, we often get lost, distracted and overwhelmed, which is how twenty years can pass us by without we even realizing it.

We decided, it is time to stop and smell the roses before it is too late. If we don’t take the time to rekindle the torch of the family, passed to us by our parents and grandparents, we may soon find our past generation gone and our future generation never having known each other…

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