Flickr user Glenmcbethlaw
A favorite topic of conversation at the annual event is how I’m such a stranger. While it’s true that better than a decade’s worth of reunions were skipped by both my sister and I, we have both been present at least twice in the past three years so I’m not quite sure why everyone continues to make such a big deal out of our attendance. Have they have simply forgotten that they saw me two years ago just as I’ve forgotten their names and how exactly we’re related? Don’t get me wrong– they’re all very nice people who are very welcoming, warm and giving but spending a Sunday wandering from room to room seeking likely candidates for common ground and scraping the potluck for any inoffensive culinary delights does not qualify as a good time.
The reason behind my sudden reemergence on the family scene was a guilt trip by my parents regarding the advanced age of my grandparents who I never see. In fact, two years ago my grandfather expressed surprise at my presence and ribbed me about it: “I know why you’re here, your parents are giving you grief about me and Oma. I know how it is kid, oh no, the old folks are gonna die soon so you better go to the family reunion.” He was more amused than anything else and said he was glad to see me, even if I no longer shared his enthusiasm for the assortment of smoked meats and roasts we used to pursue with a single-minded passion. I’m glad I went because the next time I saw him I was carrying his coffin and the joking by the buffet is a better memory.
Now my sister and I make the trip for our grandmother who has grown more frail and distant since Opa’s passing. The ride over to the east bay is always a quick game of trying to remember what’s going on with various cousins, what their girlfriend’s name is and if so-and-so is still doing that one thing or if it’s okay to talk about that other thing. My sieve of a memory doesn’t benefit much from these cram sessions and I roam around surrounded by familiar looking strangers. There’s some babies and a lot of the little kids have gotten taller but nothing out of the ordinary. My cousin (second? twice removed?) who was going through rehab looks a lot better and doesn’t have such a lag time when you talk to him which was encouraging. Despite his recent diagnosis of congestive heart failure my uncle (second? twice removed?) continues to make his multi-level dip with refried beans, olives, tomato, cilantro and cheese. I was shown some pictures of a pickup crashed through the wall of someone’s house, a nice 3 a.m. wakeup for some distant relations. Trying to take a nap on the couch during the football game is difficult because people are cracking jokes about the Raiders.
And there was Oma, (Oma and Opa are German familiars for Grandmother and Grandfather) chatting with her sisters, sitting by the fire. When she wasn’t being monopolized I went over to hang out and we spent some time watching the family devastating appetizers and holding each other’s children. I wasn’t exactly sure how to pursue conversation once we had exhausted detailing our current lives (we’re very boring, the two of us) and even future plans couldn’t really get us locked into a proper talk. She seemed entertained enough with watching people but I didn’t want to just leave, especially after she palmed me $40 to take to Paris.
Dorothea Lange; UC Berkeley
There had been some vague hope in the back of my mind that I could spend the afternoon asking about her life before I knew it– tales of growing up in Northern California, stories of Opa– but I grew timid when the opportunity arose; I just worried that she wouldn’t want to talk about these things or that it would interrupt her fun. This is probably ridiculous and I’ll forever regret not spending the afternoon learning a little about my family, but I did pick up a couple things incidental to other topics.
First of all– I’ve been lied to my whole life. Whenever anyone suggests there might be any sort of French lineage in the family they get beaten with crowbars and left to die in a dark alley. It turns out that my great-grandmother was first generation born to two French immigrants. Somehow Oma was raised to understand that being Irish was preferable and although she grew up in a home where Gaelic and English competed with French her identity became strictly one over the other.
Secondly– when Oma was in middle school her best friend was of Japanese descent, except I’ve already forgotten her name. After Pearl Harbor her friend was interred with her family, presumably at Tule Lake, but this clever little 7th grader somehow managed to smuggle a couple letters to her friends back in Red Bluff so that my grandmother and other classmates would know she was okay. After Tule Lake was closed the Japanese family never returned (most Japanese were freed from internment only to find their neighbors had acquired their property and the law was currently occupied with stripping their citizenship, not returning property rights to people) and I assume Oma never spoke with her old friend again.
It’s all very funny to me. When one grandmother was being introduced to the concept of freedom and democracy by seeing her best friend taken away to a prison camp my other grandmother was in Kyoto having an entirely different experience; a generation later she would find herself in California dealing with segregation laws forbidding mixed-race couples from living in certain neighborhoods. Meanwhile, here I am, planning on my first visit to Europe and I’m told that I’ve got some French in my background, despite what I’ve been told my entire life. It wasn’t exactly what I had hoped to learn and for the most part I spent the afternoon sitting quietly with my grandmother, saddened by her declining vitality as well as the gulf which prevented me from talking with her like two old friends. But I’m glad I went, even if there was no uproarious laughter or sense of engagement. Combine that with the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, nothing was stolen this time round and I think you could say it was a pretty successful family reunion, all in all.
Dorothea Lange’s photograph is of the mess hall at Manzanar, chosen for aesthetic reasons over historical accuracy.