By Harriet P. Gross
Not only children have birthday parties! I had a big one this year; it began on my mid-July natal day and continued through the next, part of a wonderful weekend in sunny southern California.
Cousin Celia in Rolling Hills, a beautiful Los Angeles suburb, initially floated the idea of having a reunion. And since I’m the only one of our brood with a summer birthday, why not celebrate that? So we did!
Southwest Airlines now flies to Long Beach; since Cousin Eileen lives just minutes from its airport, she asked me to stay with her. I arrived the day before my birthday and helped prepare for a festive dinner the next evening, outdoors on her cool patio. We were eight around that table: five first cousins, including one each from San Francisco and Kansas City, and three spouses. There was a huge balloon flying, and I got to blow out candles and open presents. It’s been years since I’ve done that!
A half-hour’s ride away, we reassembled at Celia’s the next evening for another outdoor dinner. Unlike Eileen, who specializes in simple dishes, she and her husband are gourmet cooks; their main dish was lamb, beautifully roasted on the grill, offered buffet- style with an assortment of salads featuring all the best of California’s gorgeous fresh produce. That evening, the original group was augmented by four second cousins who live nearby.
But there was sadness along with joy in that very special weekend. All of us are far along in years now; distance and illness prevented our four other first cousins from attending. Celia herself suffers from myasthenia gravis, a debilitating muscle disease; she has lost much height, has a badly rounded back, and must move slowly and carefully. We all knew, without having to say so, that this might well be the final major family time for her, which indeed was her reason for suggesting this reunion herself.
All of our elders are gone; the last of our parents passed away two years ago at age 100. We have already lost two in our own generation, and our children are scattered across the country. I’m the first, and so far the only, one of us to have married grandchildren; they have already presented me with two great-grandsons, so I’m the acknowledged matriarch of our clan. It’s a position of honor, but comes with the responsibility of keeping the others in regular touch, across the miles, and the years…
At the end of that second evening, we all lifted high our glasses of wine, or fruit juice, or water, depending on preferences and medications, and toasted ourselves. It was Eileen who gave us the final word: “Everyone has to love all their family members, just because they’re family,” she said. “But our family is lucky: We really LIKE each other!”