When I was a little girl, just about every relative I adored lived within three blocks of the apartment building where I lived with my mom and dad. I saw my great-grandmother and great-grandfather at least once a week, along with my great-uncles, great-aunts, assorted cousins, grandparents and… well, a whole bunch of Slovaks in Yonkers, New York.
Eventually, Dad moved us to the ‘burbs, where I lived within walking distance of my Russian immigrant grandmother and a different set of relatives and cousins. At the time, it didn’t dawn on me that everyone didn’t have countless relatives nearby like I did.
Eventually, though, I met friends with small families and no sense of clan. I felt sorry for them.
But then I grew up and moved away. In our changing culture, people no longer stay on the same block where they were born. My sense of clan faded a little—except for large, and loud, holiday gatherings.
But over the years, we saw each other less and less. Then, about twelve years ago, my godmother, Gloria, started renting a house on the Jersey Shore and inviting us all to spend a week there each summer. Somehow, we crammed 14 people – from toddlers to grandmas – into one house. And then my cousin Wally started coming with his family, renting his own house within a few blocks, and the crowd got even bigger.
If your idea of vacation is sipping a daiquiri under a palm tree on a tranquil beach, our Week of the Clan would probably make you break out in hives.
First of all, at a large family gathering like this, any semblance of privacy is non-existent. The line for the outdoor shower alone is half a block long, give or take. When we go out for ice cream, there are never fewer than a dozen of us on line for Skipper Dipper. Along with half of New Jersey.
I can’t sleep on vacation. The mattresses suck. Someone is always up and making a little noise. This year, at (ahem) fifty-plus, I finally got my own bedroom. It didn’t much matter, as my third cousin Joe’s daughter Lucy, age five, liked to barge in around 7:30 in the morning to ask, “AUNT ERICA, UNCLE JOHNNY, ARE YOU AWAKE?!” in her best outside voice.
Suffice it to say, our family vacation is like a vacation in an Army barracks. With not enough bathrooms.
So why do I do it? To re-create, once a year, what I had growing up.
This heart-swelling sense of a very LOUD (if you are not used to us, ear plugs are suggested) family that has your back. Through the miracle of social media and fancy smartphones, my teens and early-20-something kids have group chats, Snapchats, texts, and assorted other connections with their cousins throughout the year. Some of us live six states from each other, but the kids have forged their own friendships.
Social media has allowed the adults to forge stronger bonds throughout the year too. We have a standing Thursday Night Cousins Chat on Facebook (that most of us forget). But we all leave messages there and connect that way.
The Truths About Vacationing with a Clan
There are a few things I know about vacationing with 20 or so people, ages three to 72:
Good luck getting a clean (or dry) towel.
Someone else is going to use your expensive shampoo in the shower—probably the five year old, who thinks it makes good bubbles.
Cousin Michele, the cruise director, is going to drag you onto the beach to fly kites. (This year I actually got mine in the air!)
My son and younger guy cousins will teach me some kind of role-playing board game that I won’t be able to explain to other humans.
The teens will get into mischief. But there will be at least one narc amongst the cousins, so nobody gets away with too much. And you can’t really anyway, as the walls are thin.
The washing machine runs 24/7. And you’ll probably go home with someone else’s underwear in your suitcase.
There will be at least one fight—perhaps two. If curse words offend you, don’t come over for poker night.
Taco Tuesday is a thing. As is trying to come up with creative, yet budget-friendly, ways to feed that many mouths, including teen boys who can each eat an entire pizza by themselves.
At the end of it, though, the saddest day of my entire year is the day we pack up on that final Saturday. I dread it.
But then the Snapchats start, and the texts. And we see each other at Christmas most years, with some assorted trips in between.
No, we don’t all live on the same block. I remember about five words in Polish and only a smattering of Russian. I make pierogis, but much to my godmother’s consternation, I haven’t entered a church in a decade. I’m the family hippie with tattoos and politics we don’t talk about.
Instead, we speak the language of love and loudness. And those kids, the teens? They know the clan has their back. Just like I always knew. It looks different now than it did on that city block years ago, but we’re stuck with each other.
And next year? We’ll be back.
Fighting over towels.
But I want my kids—and all the teens—to have this sense of clan. Because sometimes the big, wide world can be cruel and cold. And in the end, the embrace of family is the softest landing I can give them.