Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Beautiful Strangers

Every family has them it seems.  Relatives who, for whatever reason, are estranged.  My late mother never talked to her sister in the twenty years I had with my mother.  I never met my only first cousins as a child.  It was not until I was 34 and doing some family history that I was brave enough to write a simple letter to my aunt explaining who I was, what I was doing and why I contacted her. 

We met in her house back in 1996.  She could not have been lovelier.  I met for the first time her husband, my uncle and one first cousin, who had a delightfully infectious laugh. My aunt was gracious and kind and had the same Bronx accent of my mother.  I also noticed she had some of the same eerie mannerisms of my mother: the way she drank her coffee, cleared her throat and even the way she wiped her lip with her napkin.  We shared stories of my crazy grandmother, her even crazier brothers and even my pious grandfather.  It was an amazing day.

We have had several lovely dinners together since and have become good friends. She never forgets my children’s birthdays or Christmas.  My aunt was one of the few people who called me to make sure I was okay after my father’s death.  Like a few close friends, it meant so much to me.

Why do we do this to each other?  Are our differences so great that years don’t diminish whatever silly argument started the first rift?  How can blood be thicker than water yet often can separate out like oil and water?

I have heard other families with similar stories.  Are we just too proud to admit mistakes? Are we just so intolerant of others’ ideas or lifestyles and the fact we are related make those ideas or lifestyles even more intolerable? Are we so interested in "saving face" that we become strangers?

I asked my Aunt what happened between her and my mother.  Her answer was glib and seemed to indicate that my grandmother was behind the “whole thing”.  No particulars were offered. Neither my grandmother nor mother is alive to collaborate any story.  I didn’t push. Maybe some things are best forgotten.

I will simply never really know.  But I treasure the time that I can spend with my aunt as a mother-substitute and good friend.  Next time I will bring the coffee and napkins as long as she supplies that wonderful Bronx accent.

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