17.0 'Family Reunions'

9/28/09

My family doesn’t really have reunions. Not pre-planned family reunions, anyway – you know, the kind with hats, T-shirts and what have you.

The matriarchs in our family always try to set them up, but it’s difficult.

It’s mainly money problems and logistics that prevent true family reunions from happening – we’re in a lot of different places, so it’s difficult to get everyone together at one time. Plus, my family is big and somewhat transient in nature: Lots of phone numbers change, people move and disappear for long periods of time without notice. We tend to catch up with each other when we catch up with each other – usually at some pow wow, or IGA, or Wilma Faye or Wanda’s house.

Not that we love each other any less simply because we don’t see each other. My family is very close. But most of us are, for lack of a better word, “poor.” I mean, we love seeing each other and we’re slobberingly affectionate when we actually do get to see each other. It just doesn’t happen that often, and when it does, it’s usually not under the best circumstances.

So, oddly (and somewhat morbidly), funerals have thus become our default “family reunions.” Miraculously, the hardest to find members of my family are always somehow contacted when someone dies. I’m still not sure how (Skin GPS?). Likewise, everybody in my family manages to scrape together enough finances to make it to the wakes and funerals. We take funerals very seriously.

I remember one cousin’s funeral in particular. This was a cousin that I grew up very close with since I was a baby. In fact, I used to stay at his house often – playing Atari and, yes, breakdancing in the basement (we were very much into breakdancing on our dusty streets, and we’d breakdance for free video games at pow wows). My cousin and I watched a lot of movies at his house; his family was one of the few Skin families that I knew of that had two VCRs and could record movies. Yet, attending his funeral services, I realized the only real first-hand knowledge I had of him was leftover from childhood, all those years ago. I literally had no new memories of him. And that was troubling.

I could describe in great detail the places where we used to catch frogs and the fights we got into when we were kids. Sometimes we fought other kids, and when there were no other kids around, we’d fight each other. For example, one time he hit me with a two-by-four during a game of kick the can.

Ouch.

Still, despite those vivid memories, I couldn’t tell you the names of his three children or where he’d lived for the past dozen or so years. I mean, when I go home, I only visit his parents’ house – the same house where I stayed the night as a kid. I’m a creature of habit; I just never took the time to go see my now-adult cousin in his “grown-up home” or learn anything about him since our childhood.

But I learned a lot of “grown-up” facts at my cousin’s funerals. “Oh, he was actually married? When did that happen?”

As often happens with funerals for cousins who are around my age – I met his wife and children for the first time. It was heartbreaking and embarrassing; my cousin’s wife introduced me to his beautiful little children as “Uncle Gyasi.” That caused me to feel even worse because my role should be as their uncle; I should have a strong relationship with these kids. I should not just show up at their dad’s funeral. Yet, the truth is, I’ve never had a meaningful conversation with these kids, they’ve never even seen me with their dad while he was alive. And I’m supposed to be “Uncle Gyasi?” Shameful. Still, they hugged me tightly and looked to me as if I could give them some comfort. His wife tearfully filled me in on the past dozen years of their lives – the important things I missed in my precious cousin’s life. I ended up learning more about my cousin after he passed than I knew while he was alive.

And that’s a shame.

I realized that showing up at the wake and funeral and ceremonies was not merely a matter of protocol and custom; this is where I should’ve been the whole time. I should’ve kept this relationship pure and close. We were very close at one time. I realized that I let circumstances dictate my relationship with a loved one. And now I simply do not have the opportunity to repair my relationship with my cousin during this physical life. I will never have that chance again. That chance is gone.

The artificial line between “urban” and “rez” Skin ceased to have meaning – now I just miss my cousin. He was in Montana and I was in Washington, but so what? We both had cars and phones and e-mail.

At the wake, I realized I missed him painfully and that all the horrible demographic information about the unemployment, domestic abuse and poverty on the reservation had no meaning. It was secondary. I didn’t care if I couldn’t find a job at home; I wished that I had been there to hang out with my cousin. Breakdancing in the basement should have turned into playing basketball together. Playing Atari would’ve transformed into playing Nintendo Wii. We would have matured and our fighting would have turned into hunting and fishing together.

But when I viewed his stiff, embalmed body, I realized that I will never play basketball or Wii or go fishing or hunting with him. And I got very sad upon that realization. I was heartbroken. I realized the sad irony of the situation – I missed him painfully. Still, three weeks prior, it wasn’t a big deal that we had not been in each other’s lives. I mean, my life didn’t feel any emptier being apart from him for all of those years until I heard he was gone. Truth is, he probably didn’t feel any emptier being away from me either.

But now, I miss him.

And then I started crying. And the tears were real. The tears were not a matter of protocol or custom. They didn’t happen because I was at a funeral and I was expected to cry.

I guess it’s true that you never, ever realize what you have until it’s gone. I realized what was gone at our “family reunion.”

So, I resolve, to the extent that I can control it, that funerals will not be the only time that I spend meaningful time with family members or friends. Funerals will not be my family reunions. I will randomly call my family and friends. I will annoy them with attention. They will get tired of my text messages. Funerals will not be the only time that I see Skins eating and talking and spending quality time together. Our reunions may be humble and imperfect – drinking Kool Aid, eating bologna and red hot dogs if need be – but I will do my part to help my family take my family back.

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Gyasi “Fancy Skin” Ross is a member of the Amskapipikuni (Blackfeet Nation) and his family also comes from the Suquamish Tribe. His Pikuni (Blackfoot) name is “Oonikoomsika.” He is co-founder of Native Speaks LLC, a progressive company owned by young Native professionals which provides consultation and instruction for professionals and companies. Gyasi is currently booking dates for his newest presentation, “Mother Lovers: Poetic (and Musical) Justice.” E-mail him at gyasi.ross@gmail.com.

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