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Over the River and Through the Woods...

Visiting eccentric family members is as colorful as the Castro District. I encourage you to reflect on all the differences, the qualities and all the ingredients that make family so entertaining. All you have to do is look!

How many times have you gone to visit family, only to chuckle to yourself at the color wheel of personalities? Do you look forward to such gatherings? Do you watch, laugh and shake your head? At times, there’s frustration and disappointment, but it’s always anticipated and enjoyed.

Visiting family is always an experience. There’s preparation, expense, organization and even excitement. Last-minute arrangements are completed 0n autopilot – screaming memorized lists to children, emptying wilted fruits and veggies from the fridge, packing electronic entertainment; cords, books and DVDs. watches and wags his tail with nervous anticipation. He lets his objection to our departure be known by carrying his stuffed pheasant from room to room.  

After driving through hurricane-style winds on the New York State Thruway, we arrive late and a bit tweaked. Bodies stiff from lack of movement, minds needing oxygen from interstate transit and driving politics. After driving for nearly eight hours on a trip that usually takes six, we’re greeted by uncle Andrew. The family there is known for waiting up until 1 a.m., then offering refreshments and humorous updates on extended family members.   

We laugh and catch up in dimmed light and exaggerated whispers. Roller-bags and backpacks are shoved aside, misplaced toothbrushes are found while hot washcloths clean mustard stained cheeks.

We awake to children's laughter along with the clanging of kitchen activity. I rise like the Bride of Frankenstein, desperate for coffee. Shuffling down the stairs, the aroma of coffee is noticed and verbally appreciated. Suddenly, everything hits a comfortable familiarity... like we were just here. 

The children's artwork and accomplishments from school are pinned to the kitchen wall. The stretched black cord to the kitchen phone hangs on the wall, directly next to the handwritten list of emergency phone numbers. Voicemail is not available... only a digital answering machine. 

The forgotten cream cheese and half and half sit on the counter. A half-dozen spoons and dumped coffee clutter and discolor the stainless steel sink. No one bothers loading them in the dishwasher... clean dishes remain unloaded from the night before. The store-brand cereal sits opened, wedged in the cupboard next to the organic oats and dried berries. Coffee will do.  

I walk in the living room, balancing my full cup. Reading material ranges from yesterday's Buffalo News to current issues of National Geographic and Vanity Fair.  The side door opens unexpectedly, causing a commotion among the canines.

Roy and Snickers, Andrew and Mary’s temperamental Shih Tzus, run around like they had coffee (or something stronger) t00 this morning, barking and nipping at each other – similar to greyhounds chasing the tracked rabbit. As a courtesy, feet are placed on the coffee table, giving them a cleared path. Even though they’re both neutered, they spend their days dry humping and stealing tissue from the bathroom garbage.

Chew toys are for amateurs. They prefer computer cords, old Slinkys and legs of furniture. They also pass the time by licking dishes in the open dishwasher and stretching for scraps above and below the kitchen table. Even Tuff would question such behavior.  

Their home is antique and warm. Underneath the layers of snow and ice are award-winning gardens. The couch is inviting, hugging you from all sides. Crooked pictures of European family trips and national landmarks hang on the staircase wall. Towels, sheets and beddings preferably don’t match. In the bathroom, expired Pepto-Bismol and random cold medicines sit on a dusty Lazy Susan.  

Uncle Andrew and Aunt Mary have his and hers Prii. They prioritize educating their children on the importance of worldwide cultures and travesties, both past and present. The house is littered with countless books on genocide, world humanitarian leaders and the holocaust, so much so that bookshelves sag.  

As dinner time approaches, other family members arrive with significant others for a large family dinner. Any time you throw in numerous aunts and uncles, along with a few litters of cousins, you know cocktails will be shared and delicious food will be enjoyed.  

Aunt Beth shows off her latest fashionable purchase yet refuses to pay a stylist to color her hair, hence the two shades of strawberry red. She bravely points out the difference. Both of her children are getting married this year but she openly ponders over the idea of paying a hairdresser for the event. She also insists she can find a cheaper hotel for wedding guests. Another family member shakes his head and simply states, “Beth, bed bugs – don’t want ‘em.”  

Aunt Melinda is a tiny woman that gives strong hugs. She has an exceptional talent for music and not returning phone calls. She finds humor in conflict and her nephew's uncontrollable body functions.   

Uncle Bill owns a wine and liquor store, over 80 years in the same location. He has a loyal and local customer base. Visiting him in the store is always a treat. He mumbles when the old ladies ask him to call a cab, yet brightens up when we walk in. Uncle Bill knows good wine and willingly answers all my idiot questions about various labels. He’s direct in his descriptions. “That’s garbage. Don’t waste your time.”  

His wife, Aunt Gwen, tirelessly worries over global warming and not making enough food. It’s only recent she has let go of kitchen control. She no longer frets over the proper spatula and convection oven temperature. I notice this milestone and congratulate her on her progress.    

This group seated around the dining room table has experienced each others' ups and downs.  They’ve seen family businesses grow, their children rise, fall and rise again, divorce, breast cancer, mental illness and unpredictable family personality traits. It’s accepted that life is messy, nothing's perfect and laughter is the best medicine. Grudges are not held and support for one's individual accomplishments are celebrated by all. When the finish line is crossed, all their beautiful faces are there to greet you. They say you can’t pick your in-laws or your family, but if I could, I’d stick with what I have.  

Susi March 18, 2011 at 08:27 PM
If you're taking applications....I want to be adopted or a fly on the wall. loved it.
Lisa March 19, 2011 at 01:01 PM
Were you at my last family gathering in Brooklyn? Reading this brought me home again. Thanks Cami.
Ron Peterson March 20, 2011 at 04:03 PM
Any chance I could trade my relatives for yours?
John O'Mahony March 21, 2011 at 01:03 PM
Nailed it again C - Great read!!
gwen warren April 03, 2011 at 09:43 PM
Glad you love us as much as we love you Cami-- Aunt Gwennie p.s.-- I probably should clarify that although Uncle Bill's store has been around for 80 years, he's not a day older than 81 (hee hee)!!!!!

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