-- Kids, especially teenagers, need safety nets that are woven from durable fibers -- immediate and extended family, neighbors, teachers, coaches, clergy and friends. These are the factors we loosely refer to as community.
But the most important things are also the most difficult to measure. They are not easily subsidized or promoted by government. How can we figure out a person's community score? And even if we could, how could we improve it?
I participated this week in what you might think of as a focus group on the subject. The group consisted of almost all of my cousins, who gathered here from across the country to celebrate the life of a family patriarch, my uncle and godfather, Emile Cote. Emile died last weekend at the age of 91.
The cousins ranged in age from their thirties to their sixties, and several brought their children with them. As happens at such events, we told each other lots of stories from our childhoods. My cousin Ray Cormier had gathered together boxes of old photographs and news clippings. These prompted more memories, and also told us things we did not know.
Conversation stopped when Ray pointed to a small packet of pictures that Emile had taken as a soldier rolling through France and Germany in the final stages of World War II. Included were snapshots of a Nazi death camp taken shortly after its liberation.
We had seen such pictures before, the gruesome piles of bodies, the emaciated frames of survivors. And yet we were all jarred anew, knowing that our uncle had been a witness to this inhumanity and had, in his small way, helped bring it to an end. The incongruity of our looking at these photos in a warm living room, a nearby table piled high with food, underscored both the magnitude of the evil our uncle had captured with his camera, and the extent of our good fortune.
But in truth, we did not need such a horrific counterexample to remind ourselves of how lucky we all were. For 24 hours, our conversations kept coming back to the world our parents had created for us, and to the gratitude we felt.
We spoke not at all about material things but of that crucial web of relationships that had made the very memories we were enjoying possible. Boy, the web was thick. My dad, one of seven children, had been Emile's closest friend from the time the two of them were 5. Emile married one of my dad's sisters, Donalda. Emile's brother Ferdy married another of my dad's sisters, Armande.
Emile and Donalda -- "Do" we called her -- loved kids, but didn't have any of their own. So we cousins became their children, and they were a force that kept bringing people together. Their annual Christmas party was a mandatory family event, but no one had to be drafted. My family seems genetically predisposed to partying. Sure, our family had its share of conflicts, as close families usually do. But I'll take closeness with some conflict to distance and coldness any day.
My own debt to Emile is very specific, and it's why I've been thinking of safety nets. I was 16 when my father died back in that tumultuous year of 1968, and my mother asked Emile to break the news to me. I do not remember much of what he told me that day. What I do remember is a feeling of incredible comfort. Somehow, he managed to combine matter-of-factness with warmth. He conveyed a sense that he wanted me to accept this terrible news, even as he made clear that he knew exactly how awful the news was. He made me feel much stronger than I was.
The support kept on coming. I ended up with at least three second fathers who kept an eye on me during those dangerous teen years -- and for a long time after. Because of my Uncles Ray and Emile and a dear neighbor and friend named Bert Yaffe, I never felt abandoned or alone. And because my dad had been so openly loving while he was alive, I knew they were just carrying on what he would have done had he been able to hang around.
And so in a world in which evil most definitely exists, I was touched by good people at the moments when I needed them most. I know of no sure-fire program that would allow other kids to be as lucky as I was. I just know that more kids should be. And I know that we need to cherish and nurture the bonds that allow one generation to pass on love to the next. It's how we can keep the darkness at bay.