Exactly when the tradition started remains unclear. But sometime in the late 1960’s, my extended family began gathering yearly in Miami, Florida. At the time, our numbers were small: My grandparents, my aunt and uncle and their two children, my uncle and my dad. Years passed, more weddings, more babies, and by the late 1980s, our grand total hit the 20 people mark.
In those days, my grandparents’ Miami apartment served as home base for our annual trek. They were “snowbirds,” those lucky people who head to warmer climates for the winter months. Part of our crew hailed from Texas, but the rest of us were Chicagoans, so we understood our grandparents’ choice to escape the cold temperatures. Still, as a close clan, it was imperative that we not let the whole six months pass without seeing one another.
We grandchildren numbered 11, and while our grandparents’ apartment was spacious, it was arranged for their lifestyle as a couple living without children. During the two weeks of our visit, they broke out cots and random mattresses, including one from the balcony furniture. Younger children, those under 10, were relegated to the den, which had doors to close. It was a rite of passage to get to sleep in the open living room. I remember when my cousin and I graduated to sleeping there with her older siblings. We were over the moon excited because this meant we got to stay up later, playing games, doing puzzles, watching movies. The activity didn’t matter. All that mattered was being included as a “big kid”.
Membership has its privileges, but it can have a price too. Sleeping in the living room also meant being woken up in the early hours by our beloved grandparents. Every morning, without fail, my grandfather would turn on the juicer and start squeezing the oranges. I can still hear the whirring that roused me from my slumber. My grandmother would then admonish my grandpa for all the noise: “Ben! Ben! You’ll wake the children!” To this day I’m unsure which was louder, her yelling or his juicing.
But I still loved those vacations, in spite of sleeping on top of each other and waking up way earlier than my pre-teen-self wanted. I loved them because they meant going to a place where I felt safe, surrounded by nearly all of the people in my life who loved me most in the world, making memories and engaging in activities we couldn’t do together in our real lives.
Doctors diagnosed my grandfather with Alzheimer’s when I was in seventh grade. His illness changed our annual trips to Florida, but we kept going. It became too difficult for all of us to stay with my grandparents, so we started renting condos down the street from them. This model is the one we continue to follow to this day, though I admit there have been times when I feared our tradition was breaking.
A few years ago, after my uncle passed away, the trip started to feel fragile and uninspired. It seemed that our annual vacation was heading south, and I don’t mean to Florida. My extended family has never been a group that loves change, but sometimes a little rerouting is all that’s needed to stay the course. A slight generational shift in decision making, a small relaxation of the unwritten, but understood rules, and we are now back on track.
Today you can find us on Florida’s west coast. We returned to Miami one other time, but something didn’t feel quite right. We need to continue the tradition, but we need to do it a little differently for this new generation. The urban setting of Miami Beach no longer fits our mold. Instead we take condos that are part of a larger resort. Each individual family has its own space, but we still come together at the pool and for meals. If every member of my extended family joined, there would be 47 of us. We came darn close to reaching that number this year. Forty-four of us travelled to ring in 2016 together.
The mornings right after we return are more hectic than usual. Getting up and out of the house is always an ordeal for us, but it’s especially so during re-entry week, those days immediately following a vacation. As I scramble to make lunches and feed the kids breakfast, my phone dings with a text from my brother. I know I don’t have time to read it, but I can’t help myself.
“My little girl misses her cousins,” he writes, referring to my 3-year-old niece.
I smile when I see his words, quickly typing back that her cousins miss her too, so we must make plans soon. We live only 45 minutes from each other. But there’s something about time spent together away from our homes, which bonds a close family, even closer.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post hosted by Kristi and co-hosted by Allie and Mardra, who came up with this week’s sentence: “My 2016 word of the year is…” I’ll be honest, I’m still not sure. But for this post, it’s most definitely family! Share your 2016 word below. Happy New Year!!