Two weeks ago, my extended family gathered at an Italian restaurant in suburban New York to celebrate my dad and stepmom's 27-year marriage. There was a long table, a crisp white tablecloth, a convivial proprietress ("I will bring more eggplant!"), and wine. There were 15 of us, and twice as many platters of food. There was a 6-year-old child, a couple in their 80s, half-siblings, step-cousins, boyfriends, girlfriends, a fiancée. We all took part to toast this couple who fell in love in the 80s, when I was the age my older son is now.
My east coast family. This is what we look like. Halves, steps, old, young, coupled, uncoupled, recoupled, united.
Out here in California, things are different. We don't use tablecloths, for one, and the proprietress, while convivialish, knows she's the only one who generally wants more eggplant. Only four of us fit around the table: one mom, one dad, two pre-teen boys. We eat in t-shirts, jeans, and socks. We serve meals from pots on the stove. We spill milk, we pass bread, we roll eyes, we laugh. Some of us burp, but I'm not naming names. (OK, it's Alex.)
I often think about my kids, and how different their upbringing is from my own. In broad terms, things are similar: two loving parents, one close sibling, a piano in the living room. Games, books, papers, cards, all splayed out in various configurations around the house. Plenty of food, a safe home, a pretty, tree-dappled community.
But in other ways, things are different. When I was young, my grandparents lived within a short drive. We'd see them each month, and on holidays. We'd share soup with them, and bagels, and lox, and pie. We'd celebrate birthdays, eat candy from their jars, muss the fabric on the arms of their recliners.
New York reminded me that I miss having my family nearby. I don't just miss the actual people, though of course that's part of it. I miss the very idea of relatives in close geographic proximity. And not just for me, but for my kids. For every quiet Sunday we spend at home, taking bike rides, hiking hills, reading, running errands, that's a day we're not with their grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts. And as lovely it is to eat Sunday dinner in our socks, just us, with paper napkins and spilled milk and a single, solitary platter of eggplant, or pasta, or chicken with rice, it might be lovelier still if there were 11 other people around that table beside us.