“How are we related again?” asked my cousin.
I had never met this cousin, this was the first time we were face to face. We were standing in his father’s house, I’d flown down to spend one night in San Jose so I could attend his father’s memorial. “Your dad is my uncle,” I said. “My father’s brother.”
This happened over and over during the course of the day. “You’re the lady with the penguins, right?” said one of the cousins. “Oh, I’ve read your blog!” said that other cousin (once removed). And this is what happened over the course of the day. We shared pictures, of their kids and my landscapes, and we put together a chronology of the years during which we’d lost touch with my uncle, and we did a little math, and that one cousin, the daughter I hadn’t know existed, even, and I had a little “Oh, so THAT makes sense,” moment.
In my family, we knew my uncle as the wild one, drinking and smoking and crashing on the fold out couch in the rec room. It was the 70s, he was skinny and handsome. My father used to call him Charles Bronson and sometimes “The Mexican.” He was dark and had Chinese eyes and an impressive fu manchu mustache.
One of my brothers said that my mom used him as a cautionary tale against the dangers of smoking marijuana. “I smoked pot with your uncle once and then, I got on the freeway going to the wrong way! THAT is why you should not smoke pot.” We howled, all the cousins, about this object lesson in how maybe you should let your buzz wear off before you get in the car. And we nodded, knowingly, about this uncle of our childhood, the one who was a bit off the rails.
I hadn’t seen my uncle since I was a kid of maybe 14 or 16. We crossed paths briefly at his youngest son’s Bar Mitzvah, but I don’t think I’d seen him since, I just don’t remember. In recent years, his wife had become very active on social media and we’d reconnected. I felt like my uncle was traveling with me, the notes he left, his obvious joy in my adventures, his genuine appreciation of my writing and photography. We hadn’t been in the same place in years, but magically, we kind of were in the same place.
During the formal service, before all these cousins — there were eight of us, I think, plus spouses and girlfriends — began to pound the table with laughter, we heard about the man my uncle had become after I knew him. He was dedicated to the fight against the disease that took him. He was dedicated to his work. His friends loved him, they loved his unedited style, his directness, and his boundless sense of humor. They loved his spirit and how he never lost it, not in the worst of his battle with leukemia. They said he stayed funny, all the way.
Apparently, my uncle loved Mallomars. One of the cousins said his mom would try to share them but he always got caught, his Dad counted, he knew how many were in the box. At the reception at the synagogue, there was a great tower of yellow Mallomar boxes. We ate Mallomars and drank bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and we laughed, we laughed like it was a birthday party, like we were in bar. We sat at a table covered with opened boxes of Mallomars and we told stories. We took pictures of ourselves holding boxes of Mallomars. We asked, over and over, “How are we related? Wait, what, you were born when? And you live where?”
My uncle would have loved having us all together, telling crazy stories about him and our families and the past. He would have loved the way we were all circled around that table spread with Mallomars and that he’d brought us all together.
Back home, I explained to my husband why I’d carried home a box of cookies, how all the cousins walked out of the synagogue with these silly yellow boxes under their arms. I told him how we laughed, so hard, about my crazy uncle and our crazy family. I had gone thinking I would be sad, but the saddest thing about the whole memorial was that my uncle was not there. He would have loved every single minute of it.