I can’t get this song out of my head. You know the one. Sister Sledge. We are family! If you’re familiar with the movie The Bird Cage, you will, like me, think of South Beach in Miami every time you hear the song.
If you’re not familiar with the movie, here’s a brief overview. A gay couple who own and run a drag club in South Beach are confronted with their son’s decision to marry the daughter of an uber-conservative senator, who is coming to visit the next day, in order to escape a political scandal in Ohio. Comedic and poignant chaos ensues. It’s the American version of La Cage aux Folles, and you really owe it to yourself to see this film, if only to appreciate the amazingly talented cast.
Last week, I spent a week with my cousins. Really just a few days: five days total, including travel time. My cousin Billy set it up. His partner, Garey, owns a condo on Siesta Key, large enough to sleep twelve. So he let us all stay there for free for a week, during Florida’s high season. A pretty generous offer. So we all piled in, filling the bedrooms and foldout sofas and futons.
I am the youngest of this generation of cousins. The oldest, Patti, died in 2014, at the age of 92. I’m 42. That’s a fifty-year range in cousins. Most of the cousins on this trip are a good dozen or so years older than I am. At the very end of my visit, my cousin Sara joined us, with her two kids. I hadn’t seen her in decades, and I’d never met her sweet kids. Sara and I are closest in age, just a four-year difference. My mom was the youngest of four, nine years younger than her next sibling, my uncle Dick, who died in 2012. And she married in her thirties, after she’d been an aunt several times over for a long time. So I’m the baby, and everyone calls me Chrissy.
I like this. At home, I am the boss. I have a great partner and friend in Brian, but I am usually the one with Jack, making decisions, taking care of things and people, plants and animals. So it was really nice to have the break away from responsibilities. When I arrived, my cousin Janis (named for my mother) said, “You can do anything you want here. Especially if it’s entertaining.”
Barb had brought a puzzle, and I realized I hadn’t put a puzzle together since my mom died, fourteen years ago. So we leaned over the table in the sunroom, fitting pieces together, looking for matching patterns and edges. I realized, too, what good practice it is for making art, paying attention to color and shape and line. We shared old family stories. Ed brought out photos from his recent trip to Sweden, where he had met our cousin Alexis, who was due to arrive later in the day.
Alexis is a historian, and she has thoroughly researched our genealogy for several generations. She contacted Billy on Facebook, and the rest is, as they say, history. About six months ago, Alexis’ name changed from Bjorn. Coming from a close-knit family in a small town in Sweden, it has been a difficult transition from Bjorn to Alexis. The social changes, hormonal changes, and emotional changes have been a rollercoaster for her. I am only guessing, of course, but I imagine she was anxious coming to the U.S. to meet her American family, especially in the midst of these big changes.
Perhaps because of this, or maybe by coincidence, Alexis decided to invite her two best friends, Daniel and Kristian, a gay couple who live in Stockholm within subway distance from Alexis. I truly hadn’t given the matter much thought. The three “Swedes,” as we called them, had their own plans: a few days in Sarasota with us, then Disney World, South Beach (you see the thread?), and Key West. I didn’t figure I would see much of them, but I was very much looking forward to meeting Alexis, after interacting with her on Facebook. What I hadn’t expected was to fall in love.
Alexis and her friends were engaging, funny, gentle, and kind. They asked us questions about ourselves and our lives. They shared pictures from their travels to Australia, Southeast Asia, and India. We friended each other on Facebook, and Kristian found a picture of me with Jack. He asked, “Is this your son?” Yes, I said. It was the first day of school for him, and he was scowling at the camera. “He looks just like most of Billy’s childhood pictures, doesn’t he?” We laughed and agreed.
“The boys” and Alexis were funny, charming, and caught almost all of our jokes. Ed explained that most of the younger generation in Sweden grew up on American television. Sure, they had Swedish subtitles, but from a very young age, they heard American voices speaking English, so their English is nearly perfect. They caught idioms and jokes we wouldn’t have expected a European to get. A lively discussion about The Golden Girls one night sealed the deal. These were our people.
Over the course of the few days, we talked about family, religion, politics, and we were largely on the same page. We all gawked at the exotic birds and plants, marveling at the natural world like children. I realized that in a few ways, I had an advantage over my cousins. I had grown up in this part of Florida, so I was more familiar with the culture, the people, the weather. My mother’s parents, aunt, and sister, had also lived on the Gulf Coast, so I remembered a lot about their retirement and later years that my older cousins didn’t know. And they had earlier memories of my mom that I loved hearing about. By the end of my visit, I was referring to Garey and all three of the Swedes as my cousins. We all have families of blood and also of choice. I find myself extremely lucky to call some family both.
When I said goodbye to the Swedes on my last day, just before they left for Miami and I left for home, I teared up. I didn’t want to leave these wonderful people, my newest family members. I knew I’d see my cousins again, but how far away is Sweden? Barb and Janis and Barb’s husband, Dick, whisked me away on beach cruiser bikes, and I didn’t have time to be sad. We waded in the chilly Gulf waters (64 degrees that day), had pina coladas and snacks at the Daquiri Deck in Siesta Key Village, and then turned my bike in, before heading back to Tampa and the airport and home.
I was happy and relieved to be home with Brian and Jack, after the excitement of my Florida adventures. But now the world and my family seem a lot bigger than they used to. Just like the ending from The Bird Cage, I’m surprised by how big and how different and yet how similar a family can be. It makes me want to get up and dance.