When the man I’d been dating for seven months proposed to me in October 1987, I hesitated, unsure, unwilling to risk a second marriage. Virgoian by nature, pros and cons lists were drawn up; red flags were duly noted. For two long months I prevaricated. Then came Christmas Day.
It was time to meet Rob’s family, all 29 of them…all at once. “How should I dress?”, I foolishly inquired of him. “Oh, we’re a really laidback, beach-type family, super casual. Jeans and a sweater would be just right”. NEVER ask for sartorial advice from a man, unless he happens to be gay or in the fashion biz, I realized too late, as the door to their home swung open to reveal 29 curious and expectant faces, all impeccably dressed for a formal Christmas dinner in gorgeous cocktail attire.
Despite that rocky start, I was enveloped into this amazing family’s warmth and graciousness and immediately became one of their merry band. I felt like I had been issued a passport into a Norman Rockwell painting, roaring fires in a grand home, massive Xmas trees, piles of gifts, and incredible food. And love and Irish humor, and more love, then more laughter. This was what I’d been searching for so desperately since I was a little kid.
On the way home that night, I told Rob that yes, I would marry him. That raucous Irish clan of his had sealed the deal. I didn’t so much marry a man as much as I married his family, with the stability and continuity I knew I would find there.
For almost 20 years, these thirty souls shared dune-side marriage proposals, beach weddings, Easter egg hunts, and summer vacations at their home on the Jersey Shore. It was a languid and magical period that seemed to have no end, until one day…it did. The family patriarch, Uncle Ed, died suddenly and unexpectedly. This incredible man was so beloved by so many that, despite a massive snowstorm that crippled the Northeast, hundreds of mourners risked life and limb to attend his service. Kilts were donned, pipers piped, and a wake ensued, as only the Irish know how.
All those years of Uncle Ed’s love and devotion that he so generously heaped upon all of us, the special things that he remembered about each and every one of us, despite a very active life in politics and a run for governor of New Jersey. He noted and cataloged the kind of bagels we each liked, our favorite donuts and coffee, who had shellfish allergies. The bar was always stocked with our favorite sins, and a warm welcome and that blue-eyed twinkling smile was always there, solid and immovable and always ready to lend any of us a hand. He and his wife walked the talk when Rob and I were in the midst of an open adoption and the birth mother wanted to live closer to us during her pregnancy. Uncle Ed immediately extended an invitation for her and her young son to come live at their beach house for six months. I can’t conjure the inconvenience this arrangement must have cost them, but that was how this family operated, glued tightly together, bonded against the world.
In the 18 years since Uncle Ed’s passing, many more great grandbabies have been born, weddings planned, and calendar pages flipped. Since Rob’s death in 2005, my son and my connection to the family has loosened, mostly due to geography. It is with incredible sadness I have recently learned of the fracturing of this once rock solid family. Siblings are now pitted against one another, cousins are estranged, mothers and daughters are at war. Sides have been chosen and lines drawn in the sand.
What is at the heart of this treachery? What is the name of the demon destroying this family? A single beach house, a seemingly innocent pile of lumber and memories. As Ed’s beloved widow edges closer to passing from this world, deep into her 90’s, a power struggle for ownership of the beach house has begun, despite legal documents having been drawn up years before, just in the event of such a fight.
With the wisdom and vantage point that only a departed soul can possess, I can only pray that Uncle Ed can see some sense behind all this madness that is causing his beloved children and grandchildren to jockey for position in the quest for this home. I’ve always believed that love, once created, never dies. It may morph and shape shift, but it cannot be destroyed. I’m puzzled by what form this once strong familial love might have evolved into. Would it be recognizable?
I’m sure those are Uncle Ed’s teardrops I hear splashing on the sand.