The value of relationships is priceless, even when there is an ocean in the way.
I am a Jersey girl but I didn’t grow up going to the shore and I never went to summer camp. We went to Disney once or twice, but only because I had relatives to visit nearby. My dad was a language professor and a serious travel addict. He wanted nothing more than to see the world, every place and every chance he got. My brother and I trailed behind him, visiting every country. Each trip abroad ended in the same place. Ireland.
My dad was first generation Irish-American, born to immigrant parents. His mother and father entered this country as servants in a large house in Glen Ridge, NJ. She was a cook and he was the chauffeur. They fell in love and were married. Their path took them to Manhattan, where they would stay to raise a family.
My grandmother was a tough cookie, to say the least. She managed to take every seeming misfortune and spin it into gold. Arriving in the United States in 1912, she quickly made a career for herself. First as a servant, then as a laundress. When she had an accident and fell breaking several bones, she received an insurance settlement. Instead of using it on doctors, whom she didn’t trust, she bought a nine-unit apartment building on 74th and Columbus on a tax lien and became a landlord.
She refused to comply with what was expected of women at the time. Her entrepreneurial spirit allowed her to take her destiny into her own hands. A lifelong devout Catholic, she used to say things like every woman should be allowed to have one illegitimate child. She did not conform her opinions to your rules, ever. Even if you were the Catholic Church.
My father always remained close with his family in Ireland. We visited many summers, spending our time playing on the farm or wandering through town to buy trinkets and candy. The time with family provided close bonds with our cousins. My brother and I were close in age to our twin cousins. When we visited, the four of us were inseparable.
What I remember most is the laughter. Sleepovers. Piles of candy. Long car trips to see megalithic tombs and beautiful cliffs overhanging the ocean. There was nowhere we could travel without stopping to see some relative along the way. I remember eating fresh strawberries all summer. Learning to ride a horse. Being thrown from a horse. Feeding the pigs. Feeding the calves from a bottle. On boring days, we played kick the can for hours. It was all magical.
When my father died 13 years ago, a mass was held in the home of one of my Irish cousins. His impact on the community there filled the house with mourners, come to pay their respects. To honor his memory, I have to keep the connection alive. So I go back to Ireland.
And over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to bring my children back to Ireland. I get to watch as they have the same experiences. Developing their own close bonds with their cousins is incredible to see. Keeping the connection alive is the entire point of the visit.
Watching my two little ones being scooped up by my relatives is incredible. We do not see each other very often, but the visit always makes it seem as if not a day has passed. The bond of family is unbroken by time or distance or familiarity. It never seems like a day has passed.
Even now, in our forties, every visit feels like a sleepover. We stay up talking. We cannot get enough of each other’s stories. Every detail of daily life is fascinating. I could listen to stories for hours. We cover family funerals and the associated drama, work nonsense and the most mundane aspects of life. It doesn’t matter. Just being in each others presence is fascinating and time well spent.
The trouble is always in saying goodbye. We know the distance will always be there. As a rule, we do not take each other to the airport when we leave. It just feels too hard emotionally. The distance is great and the separation is long. We know it and we accept it. Missing each other is part of loving each other.
Making time to keep the connection, to hear and tell stories is the real stuff of life. Friendship and love and closeness can never be faked, but it can be lost if it isn’t nutured. My connection to the people I love is my most valued investment.