When I was a young girl, our family reunions each Christmas were rather dull, predictable affairs. One could count on parents and siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins showing up year after year, happy with their lives or not, and though it was predictable, it gave us all a sense of continuity with the past and of optimism for the future.
A few years ago, however, that began to change.
At our most recent Christmas gathering, my cousin Marge introduced me to her new husband Joe, a pleasant-looking fellow who had stationed himself by the punch-bowl. Joe, in turn, introduced me to his daughter from his first marriage, Anne.
Anne, it seems, was in love with Marge's son from her first marriage. The two step-children would soon be married with all interested parties in attendance. Natural parents and grandparents, step-parents, brothers and sisters, step-brothers and sisters, half brothers and sisters . . .
"We'll need a large hall," Marge said, beaming. "Isn't it marvelous!"
"It certainly is," I said with an honest, if confused, smile.
My Uncle Pete was dancing under the mistletoe with a woman I had never seen before. "After your Aunt Clara left me for the women's movement," he told me later, "I was very lonely. Then I met Sally and boom!"
"The beautiful thing about it," he said, "is that all our kids get along great. Her seven and my six. Clara used to complain about all the work raising six kids. Sally here is raising 13!"
I wondered what Christmas must have cost them, with gifts and all. But his smile, then Sally's, convinced me that those two had it all worked out.
My brother Lewis was looking around for his third wife, Jessica. I told him I thought I saw her go into the powder room. He held their little girl, while two 4-year-old boys, one from her previous marriage and one from his second one, romped about the room with their new Christmas toys. A taller boy, my 10-year old nephew from Lewis's first marriage, poured himself some eggnog.
"How's your mother?" I asked him with a smile.
He pondered my question. "Which one?"
My cousin Jean was there on the arm of Sal, the ex-husband of our cousin Sue. I wondered how this sat with Sue, who was across the room near the Christmas tree with Lex, her newest companion. At least I think that was his name. Cousin Sue changed companions rather frequently.
To my amazement, the cousins greeted each other warmly. Jean and Sue hugged each other and exchanged gifts. Then Sal kissed each of his and Sue's three children. They, in turn, all said hello politely to their Auntie Jean, who was actually their second cousin.
My sister June confided in me as soon as we were alone. "It's not working out. God knows I've tried to make this new marriage work. After that last disaster, I was determined to make a go of this one. His mother won't accept me. His kids refuse to call me Mom." June twisted her hands in anguish. "I've already talked to my lawyer. He said he'll arrange everything."
"June," I asked, when I could get a few words in, "how long have you been married this time?"
"Two months next Tuesday," she said, near tears.
Two stepcousins found each other from across the crowded room. And somehow they knew, they knew even then . . .
He was the stepson of my brother Lewis -- from his first marriage. She was the step-daughter of my cousin Jean, from her second marriage. With the increasingly large crop of new cousins that showed up at the Christmas reunions, these two young people had not truly noticed each other until today.
"I'd like to call you," I heard the boy say to the girl. There was wonder in his voice. "Where do you live?"
"It depends," she told him. "On weekdays I stay with Mom most of the time." She gave him the number, which he wrote down on a napkin taken from the buffet table. "On weekends I sometimes go to Dad's. Or if he's not around, I stay with my stepmother Mary, or my stepmother Jean."
"My Auntie Jean? Over there?"
"Isn't she your cousin?"
"She's my stepfather's cousin, and she's older. It's more respectful to call her aunt."
"It's a nice family," the girl observed.
He sighed, "I hope you'll be part of it someday."
She looked puzzled. "Aren't I already?"