Mary Lou Sanelli
Mary Lou Sanelli

I can only write about my family reunion in hindsight. The reasons for going are obvious, but initially I resisted, staring at my invitation, then hiding it from view.

But as the world shifts under our feet, the personal effect is even greater: a feral-like need to connect with those we love, far more powerful than any word I can think of to describe it.

Upon arriving, I am stunned by the contrast of past, my past and present. I am transfixed. Emails and Christmas cards are one thing, but something so related, something whose existence derives from DNA yet extends well beyond genes, something like family, family in the flesh, that’s quite another. So much so that writer-cum-eavesdropper that I am, I start to scribble notes on a cocktail napkin.

But instead of feeling like a writer, I feel like a spy. Not the sister, daughter, cousin, niece and aunt I need to be between breath-catching silences.

I am so happy to be with people who look like me and talk like me that I almost burst into tears. The affinity I feel is my affinity.

However.

While I’ve remained close to my sister, since losing our mother, I see less of my dad than I like. And I confess, it’s been 20 years since I returned to the fold of my extended family 20 years! Living in the Northwest can do this to an East Coast transplant.

I still have a clear mental picture of me all those years ago, Jordache-jeaned and riding a Greyhound bus across the country, leaving home not a decision I needed to mull over.

From early on, I sensed that in order to find out who I was, I would need to shed, mile by mile, who I was not.

Yet, there is no denying the faces filling the reunion suite belong to the proud people who were there for me before our roads forked. And with each stride I take across the carpeted room, my world pauses, like a good listener, to let me move into my family’s orbit without hesitation, embarrassment or any of the other flustering emotions that define the wandering, restless will of an immigrant’s daughter.

Which brings me back to why, sitting around a table in a Manhattan supper club where photos of Frank Sinatra hang in gilded frames over the bar, I am reminded just how far I’ve strayed. Because though I wear my best dress from the Banana Republic, to the women of my family, unless your clothing has sequins, you are not dressed up.

And when Cousin Johnny actually says “badda-bing” for emphasis, I laugh out loud. Worse, when he stands by the door with his chin up and arms crossed behind him looking like a bouncer hired for our reunion, I joke that he reminds me of Tony Soprano.

This is where he shoots me a look with those thick black eyebrows to let me know that we are simpatico, sure, but I’d better put a lid on it. And only after I nod to a second round of antipasto am I fully trusted. Because he is not, I soon discover, anywhere near amenable enough to consider the word “vegetarian.”

I don’t let this bother me. To my family, food is tantamount to faith, and you don’t stray from its consecrated dictum. This might be my body, but it is their Holy Eucharist.

But don’t a lot of my friends in Seattle define a huge part of themselves by what they will or will not eat? Isn’t there usually some food politics to contend with in the company of those of us who feel entitled to our likes and dislikes no matter what? No matter where? No matter how contradictory?

Recently, at one of those B & B breakfast tables that make me cringe (I am not a morning person. I am especially not a morning person who likes to sit with strangers at 8 a.m. and make small talk), when the vegan sitting across from me spoke out in support of the Native American right to slaughter another magnificent whale, I had to challenge her convictions no matter how many times my husband kicked me under the table.

Mentally, I compare this to my family’s food issues at hand: whether a pound of pasta per person is enough to serve. How, as soon as lunch is over, conversation shifts to supper.

I don’t even try to give my family a view of my city with which they can identify. A city whose people eagerly espouse cultures other than their own as if searching for an identity (think Tibetan prayer flags snapping over Scotch-Irish foyers) and how this differs from my family’s way of embracing only their own culture.

I figure, when you get right down to it, is there any real difference between meditation crystals and rosary beads if peace of mind is all you’re after?  

To my great surprise, and as exhausted as it made me, I climbed back up the rungs of our family tree.

And what did I learn?

That I now have the tools to make whole my life and work.

That I can turn a new leaf into one far more flexible; one that eases any rigid idea I might have had about my own autonomy.

That family, however you define it, asks us to reach a little higher, do something more, make the extra effort.

 

— Mary Lou Sanelli’s latest book, “Every Little Thing,” has been nominated for a 2022 Washington State Book Award. Find it at Magnolia’s Bookstore and The Queen Anne Book Company, www.marylousanelli.com.