I t was a radiant summer day, the start of our family vacation. My relatives had opened a map showing various attractions at San Diego's Balboa Park, and then, we scattered. Strolling through museums or bobbing on the carousel, we spent the hours in vastly different ways. Now we were meeting back at the Japanese gardens.
The ever-punctual grandparents arrived first, followed by my stepbrother and other members of our extended family. Six-year-old Alec trailed behind his mother, toting a new souvenir. At last, all 14 of us came together — too many for a soccer team, but enough to form a quirky and complicated family. It was absurd to feel so grateful for my relatives' safe return. We were only sightseeing, after all, out of harm's way in a lovely park.
At dinner, we shared the day’s discoveries. My stepdad asked, “What did you explore this afternoon?” There was no lite answer that would fit the tone of our carefree evening. But as I thought it over, it seemed the right occasion, and my loved ones the appropriate audience, for my story.
While at the Museum of Photographic Arts, I stopped to watch the multimedia exhibition, “7 Billion Others” — a collection of interviews with people living in various countries around the world. The conversations explored issues that separate and unite us all, as members of the human family.
One man’s moving story awakened me to the importance of honoring our connectedness as family. In his interview, he recounted the horror that faced his family in Germany during World War II. When the man was a baby, SS officers barged into his parents’ home, and since they were Jewish, the SS planned to send the family to a concentration camp. As one German officer looked at the child, tears welled in his eyes. He made an excuse to leave, warning the couple that he would return the following day. Given a short reprieve, his parents planned their escape, sending the baby to relatives while they pursued another route to safety. Many years later, after tremendous struggle, the family was reunited.
Upon finishing my story, we set aside our wine glasses, and my family members grew reflective. We gazed across the table at one another. On our shared vacation, we faced no divisive threats. In fact, we faced nothing more demanding than making dinner reservations. We were spending time together — smooth sailing, right?
But destruction can take root and grow inside families, too. Only hours earlier, I had bickered with my sister over a trivial matter. Quickly, the division of kitchen clean-up duties in our vacation rental had us communicating like keyed-up middle-schoolers. We may lack the Kardashians’ penchant for drama, but we can string together damaging words.
Sometimes old resentments and grudges overshadow reunions, and careless remarks from relatives leave us feeling vulnerable. We turn our backs on a unity that is ours to claim, then return to the ‘real’ world, where others are less vested in our happiness.
As I set the holiday table for Christmas this year, I consider that our kin will travel hundreds of miles for this homecoming. It’s just the occasion to reconjure the family as a sanctuary from the outside world, a place where we can offer support and acceptance to one another.
Some family members share my genes, others have joined us through marriage, yet each has faced the sting of the world’s rejection. Before chiding my sister, I should ask myself, “What kind of year has she experienced?” Surely there have been defeats, disappointments, and criticisms. I’ve experienced similar blows.
At the kids’ table, cousins and siblings laugh together, relishing the joy of being together. The young are not yet making lists of grievances. With some effort, they can keep the healing joy in their reunions during the years to come. For grown-ups, this holiday homecoming is a chance to work at renewing bonds.
Today, I continue to reflect with thankfulness for grandparents, step-siblings, nieces, and nephews reuniting near the meditation garden on that sunny afternoon. I know how we might contribute to the story of “7 Billion Others”: by recognizing that it’s hard out in the world, but it’s strengthening here, where we can care for one another.