Raised in a family like mine, with innumerable cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, brothers and a sister, the universe was populated by some seemingly eternal personalities, larger than life men and women who seemed as if they would always be as they were when I was 12 years old.
The brood was largest on my mother’s side, after my grandparents left Brooklyn, New York, and crossed the country in their youth to start a clan that would eventually contain six brothers and four sisters, almost all of whom spent the bulk of their lives in and around Humboldt Bay.
My mother was close to most of her siblings, so growing up I spent time with nearly all of them, with their children, playing in overgrown yards, dodging our often teetering parents who were awfully fond of backyard parties, drunken camping, overnight fishing trips and hunting all around the hills and forests of Northern California.
The Poletskis worked hard, drank hard, loved hard and laughed incessantly. As they aged, some of them put their bad habits down and settled in to quiet lives, while others have continued to fight their demons even now as they’re approaching their retirement. But until these past few years, as I’ve seen my mother grow older and a favorite uncle lose some precious cognition in his battle with Alzheimer’s, they were more like mythological beings than flesh-and-blood men and women.
They were larger than life, energetic and sometimes feral, prone to self-destructive behavior at times, but also free with kind words, fierce hugs and good advice. Coming from a strained homelife, I was eager for their guidance and affection, willing for once to put down my book and even pick up a hunting rifle now and again if it qualified me as one of the boys.
They were flawed, as is everyone, but their antics and adventures helped forge my identity, and gave me a strong sense of what it meant to be a man and part of a family.
But as with all families, the years have put the strain on many of these relationships. Though my cousins and I share a hometown, and in some cases live only a few blocks apart, we seldom see each other, and make little or no effort to ever bridge those gaps.
The aunts and uncles have now spread to the four winds, many of them following their own kids to other areas, other states, to be close with their grandchildren and foster these broods of their own.
There are rivalries, old feuds, ancient crimes and petty jealousies that have lingered through the decades and have unfortunately ripened into deep fissures that may never heal. Some seem ridiculous to me now, yet others remain wholly understandable. All of them are sad.
For once, part of me wishes that the old childish view held true — that somewhere in the ether out there my family would always make their way home to one another, that the years wouldn’t strip away mind and muscle, leave death and heartbreak in their wake. As it is, we’re faced with a slowly fading, even hollow intimacy that once meant much more, once even defined our lives.
Without family, without the pervasive resemblances of habit and feature, or these deeply rooted, entwined histories, how can we know ourselves? How else can we know how far we’ve come, how far we have to go, without those folks who knew us when the diaper leaked, or we wet the bed?
They keep us humble, and alive with memory.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at email@example.com.