There’s a saying that overnight visitors are like fish – both begin to smell after a few days. While it may hold water sometimes, it certainly proved untrue in the case of my most recent visitors, some cousins who stopped over for a week while on a cross-continent adventure.
Smart, funny, gracious and helpful, they slipped seamlessly into the life of my family. We cooked meals together, schlepped off to carpool kids in heavy traffic and pouring rain, engaged in blissful conversations about our shared family’s past and indulged in the pleasure of a relationship that goes back at least three generations.
All the chores of an ordinary week were tremendously more enjoyable with them around. It didn’t matter that they were fairly distant cousins, or that we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in three years. Defiant of time and distance, our relationship remained close, nurturing and deeply satisfying. So when they left, I felt a keen sense of precisely how much loss goes hand-in-hand with emigration.
I left South Africa 25 years ago, bright-eyed, young and thirsting to broaden my horizons and experience North American life. It seemed so much more interesting than the insular, strife-ridden city and country I’d previously called home. The move gave me the incredible opportunity to travel, learn and embrace a new culture. But it also pulled hard on my familial strings, severing once-close relationships with cousins, aunts and other relatives I left behind, people who had once been intrinsic to the fabric of my life.
It meant no more Shabbat meals with my cousins and no more large family gatherings around a Passover table. It meant my kids would never know my cousins’ kids and we’d never move effortlessly in and out of one another’s lives on a weekly basis the way only family can.
“Our friends have become our family,” we immigrants like to say, particularly on the High Holidays, when family friends become the only alternative to sitting down with real family. We know deep down though that there’s no substitute for real family. The ties that connect us back to our childhoods are irreplaceable. Family members are the only ones who can reach far back in time to recall who we once were, where we came from and how far we have travelled to get to our present-day selves. That connective tissue is precious, humbling and ever so comforting. And that is what’s missing when we leave home.
Some aspects of extended family life were easier to leave than others. There were farribles, arguments that festered like a stubborn blister, refusing to heal. I recall the annoying habits of some of my family members, like my aunt who’d dig her fork directly into the salad bowl (“such poor manners,” my mother would say), my uncle who would fall asleep on the couch before dessert, a large hairy stomach protruding from his shirt, the picky vegetarian who was never satisfied with the food offerings and the moody cousin who would sit sullenly at the table, refusing to utter a single word.
Emigrate and you get to leave those bad smells behind, and find a new milieu in which to grow, thrive and build a life. But you also relinquish the opportunity to improve those relationships and to create new ones with the next generation. With the scattering of our tribe, I cannot watch my nieces, nephews and cousins progress through their lives, or meaningfully share their triumphs and misfortunes.
This year, I’ll be thinking of the cousins who can never make it to my dinner table – distant family members who are still close to my heart but sadly absent from my life. Stinky fish sometimes, but irreplaceable ties to my past.