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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sanibel Island

I am on vacation on Florida’s Sanibel Island for one week. It is a trip we always take after visiting my family in El Paso, and it is a trip that Laura’s family has been taking for over forty years. With champagne held high in my plastic cup, I have celebrated only eighteen New Years in Sanibel, so I am a relative newcomer to this family tradition. Yet over the years, Sanibel has truly become my family tradition as well. Laura, Aaron, and Isaac could not live without our spending time together on this island, and neither could I.

How do you metamorphose from an outsider, cautious and even suspicious of the family you are adopting by marriage, to an insider, a member of the family, someone who belongs in the most intimate moments an extended family can share? I think one answer to this question is persistence. If you don’t leave, if members of your wife’s family see you act and react in many different situations, and grow to respect how you do things, what you think, how you hold your own in an argument, then perhaps over many years they begin to accept you.

For in Sanibel, I was adopting my wife’s Jewish family. I remember my first year in Sanibel; it was a bit overwhelming. It is basically a hothouse, in which Laura’s parents, sister, brother, aunt, and cousins, and their extended families, are all in adjacent rooms at a small hotel on the beach, many often sitting together at the pool, or barging in and out of your room to make dinner plans. Each night we take turns cooking dinner in our rooms, which are meant for two adults, but into which we drag chairs and extra tables and cram as many as eighteen people for a free-for-all dining experience. Grandparents, babies, children, teenagers, middle-aged adults. In Sanibel you press the flesh to the max, and there is no place to hide.

Over the years, as I grew to know the different personalities in my wife’s family, as some became truly good friends, I became more relaxed about going to Sanibel. Everybody had successes and failures over the years, just as we did. We gossiped about each other, we asked for advice, and we argued politics, sometimes bitterly. Often old family squabbles, which predated my arrival into the Sanibel scene, erupted out of nowhere. Yet every year, almost everybody returned to Sanibel. This year we have a full house.

Is this a family then? When you don’t leave whom you are with, even after the bitterest of fights, or even after your fortunes may have diverged dramatically over the many long roads of the past? You could ask why do we return here, why with these people? No doubt, there are selfish reasons to return to Sanibel: the gorgeous beaches, magnificent shelling, biking to Captiva, the simple pleasure of walking on the white sand at dawn.

But no, those are not the reasons why I come back. I come back to remember who I am; I come back to see who I might be; I come back to be with the people I miss all year. Yes, sometimes a few of them rub me the wrong way, but not always. I myself, as my wife has often reminded me, possess a prickly pear cactus of a personality, and so perhaps I am lucky to have found this family whose appearance may seem forbidding, but whose insides contain the sweetest of rewards.

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