When a contentious family fight erupted during my adolescence, my large extended family imploded and became estranged. Poof! Seemingly in an instant, my holidays bustling with cousins and aunts and uncles vanished. Naturally, it was difficult (for a teenager especially), but the adage of children being resilient became evident, and my siblings and I muddled through.
Since that confusing and erratic time, I found, like countless adults before me, that wounds heal, scars fade, and unfortunate experiences shape who we ultimately become. Likely as a result of our past, my sister and I have remained steadfast in our determination not to have history repeat itself. Throughout our years of heated arguments (because hello, sisters — arguments were numerous), we’ve worked hard to get through them. Over time, we’ve been bonded by a shared simple goal: Our own children will never, ever know such heartache.
But time is a fickle friend who clearly pals around with his buddy, the internet. While my mother lay unresponsive in hospice care, I whiled away hours with my laptop. I googled everything and everybody, and I eventually stumbled across a cousin.
When my mom passed, I sent my cousin a message in the event that she might want to relay the news to her mother, my mom’s sister. I don’t know why I did it. She was a toddler when our family fractured, and I had no idea what she knew, what she remembered, or what she’d been told. It really didn’t matter to me. I just couldn’t imagine going through life not knowing if or when my own sister had died. It was unimaginable to me.
I never heard back from her. Five years passed without any acknowledgment that the news was received, and I eventually forgot all about it.
This week, out of the blue, I got a response. I stared down at my phone in disbelief and felt my gut tighten. It took several minutes before I read it through. Unbeknownst to us both, my message went into a holding file deep within the bowels of Facebook. A safeguard to keep weirdos at bay, it’s a measure that detects non-friends and keeps their correspondence buried until one chooses to view it. My cousin, obviously now a grown woman, was aghast at the length of time she had unknowingly ignored me.
We exchanged a few polite pleasantries and I sent over my last memories of her (expertly captured with my favorite Christmas gift of 1980 — a Polaroid camera) the last time we were together. She immediately friend-requested me and we are now connected. I can see through her photos the story of the life she has lived without me, and I’m sure she’s done the same of me.
We are complete and total strangers through no fault of our own, and while I’m certain we both know that nothing in the past had anything to do with us, it is still on shaky ground we stand. I have countless memories of her. With a decade between our ages, she (likely) has none of me.
My teenage recollections of summers spent at her house are vivid. I remember all the records I listened to continuously on her parents’ stereo. I knew her paternal relatives and her neighbors. (Gawd, I even went on a date with the boy next door to — holy ’80s — a laser show at the planetarium.) I can recall every inch of her house, and I know I taught myself how to swim in her T-shaped pool. I remember my fascination with the endless packets of McDonald’s strawberry jam in her fridge (perks of her grandfather, an executive for the company when they started serving breakfast). I remember the sad circumstances of his death — he was found motionless when the family returned from my grandmother’s wake. He was babysitting her and her brother because they were too small to attend.
Memories…it’s crazy, really. And yet, it’s comforting too. No question.
But this newfound connection is melancholy also, as the many years of hurt and offense have flooded me of late. I know why my own mother chose to stay away from her family, but fervid curiosity consumes me about the other side of the story. You know, their version, which — I am old enough to realize — may not be entirely accurate (as may not be mine). There’s a part of me that wants to beg for clarity and information. There’s a bigger part of me that asks, Does it even matter anymore?
I spent so much of my life thinking my aunt, her mother, was such a terrible, dreadful person that it’s difficult to feel boundless joy in finding my cousin after all these years. I think about the betrayal my mother might feel if she knew, and that saddens me a little.
So many emotions and so few answers, but now we’ve got nothing but time.
I guess for now, living thousands of miles apart, we’ll see where the internet takes us.