I was a bit nervous the week before my family’s 4th of July reunion. If I’m being honest, I got so nervous at one point that I had a hard time sleeping.
It’s not a new feeling for me. Much of early widowhood (at least a year and a half!) was filled with sleepless nights, and just after I felt like I was really settling into life as a young widow, the pandemic hit. But this recent sleeplessness was not because of the pandemic – everyone in my family who could be vaccinated had been, and we took all the precautions we could for the little ones. Rather, my sleeplessness was about yet another transition.
Meeting the family.
About a month ago, my extended family decided that it was time to gather again. We’ve done this for years around the fourth of July, meeting up to barbecue and swim in the pool and eat a ton of ice cream. Being in Texas at Nana’s house is one of the highlights of the year. It’s something our family of 5 frequently talks about at dinnertime and when we are sharing our favorite memories with each other. The kids were desperate to go, and they were really excited that Chris would be coming for the first time.
I was excited too….and nervous. I’m not totally sure why I felt this way, because my Clark family is incredibly loving and accepting. They’re also a ton of fun, and they love people who love life. So I knew they’d love Chris.
Honestly, that’s how I’d also describe Chris – as incredibly loving, accepting and a ton of fun. So why was I so worried?
I mean, I guess it’s because I wanted everyone to love each other like I love them. I knew it was likely. But I also knew that it could be tricky. I knew that my Clark family desperately loved Shawn and would tell stories about him, that Chris was going to have to parent alongside me when kids were having sugar-induced meltdowns, and that the five of us have been mostly cocooned up at home as we’ve grown into a nuclear family of 5, living mostly separate from anyone other than each other.
I wanted Chris to feel the Clark family magic, and I wanted the Clark family to feel Chris’s love for me and the kids. And just the degree of intensity of my own emotions made me feel nervous as the trip approached.
I started feeling better just outside baggage claim, when Claire started running. She was followed shortly by her brothers, as they screamed for their cousins and their uncle and their Nana. “You’re here!” they shouted as they each took turns twirling each other around. Chris squeezed my hand as we walked toward my family, where everyone hugged as families do.
And so the week started. It didn’t take long before I started to worry about the same things that I’ve always worried about when introducing new people to my family – that we might be too much for them. I mean, I love a crowd and people who shout over each other and dozens of extroverts eating dinner together but….I know it can be a lot. And the food! I mean, there’s everything from steaming barbecue to chocolate cake topped with marshmallow fluff to never-ending Dr. Pepper. But that’s not all, because of course it’s not all. We are also a family with many differences, the kind of family that’s everywhere in America, but not always able to gather under one roof. I’ve got a family member who drives a Chevy Avalanche with a six inch lift and another family member who drives a hybrid car. We vote all over the place and we go to different churches (though some don’t go at all.) One of my aunts just wrote a heavily-researched memoir and another regularly brings home the National Enquirer (because you never know what you might read in it.) We argue about everything and then we laugh watching the World Chase Tag Championships as we eat heaping bowls of ice cream. It’s messy and imperfect and it’s glorious. I don’t want to change anything about my Clark family. I love my family.
But it’s also a lot.
On top of everything else, my family talks about everything and everyone in our family – including the people who’ve died. Which means that Chris heard a lot about my mom and my uncle Fred, but also about Shawn and things that had once happened with Shawn and memories of Shawn. Of course, we talk about Shawn at home in DC, too. It’s just compounded when there are dozens of people remembering him. My family loved Shawn so much. Every single one of my cousins (along with almost all of the rest of my aunts and uncles and other relatives) showed up for his funeral, and I spent a lot of time grieving with them in the years afterwards. I wondered if it would be overwhelming for everyone – for the Clarks and for Chris – to all be together for a week. Even if everyone wanted the best outcome, and even if everyone was coming with full and open hearts.
I love Chris for all the reasons I’ve described on my blog – because he’s been patient with my grief and open in his love for me, because he’s an incredible parent and because he’s just a ton of fun and a person who makes me happier than I could have imagined. And I love the Clarks for all the reasons I’ve also described on my blog – because they are warm and loving and passionate about everything, including who should win each episode of American Ninja Warrior. And so I believed in the idea that we could all love each other, even if it was imperfect.
So did Chris. “It’s going to be great!” he’d say when I worried.
So did my family. “I can’t wait to see you!” they all said when I reached out in the weeks beforehand. Slowly, I settled into the idea that things may not be perfect, but that they could still be great.
The first night we all gathered, my cousin’s 10-year-old kid was getting toppings on his ice cream. One of the parents tried to limit the toppings, thinking it might be too late for such excess. “But,” he said, his face turning into a smile, “we go all-out at Nana’s house!”
It became a slogan for the week. “We go all-out at Nana’s house!” we’d shout, and then laugh. We do go “all-out” at Nana’s house, with our food and the volume of our discussions and the level of our debates, and with the fact that Nana always jumps in the pool with all her clothes on at least once during the gathering. This year, we went so far as to set up a screen in the backyard so we could all watch Jaws from the pool. Yes, the ridiculousness makes our reunion so fun – but really, what’s so fun are the people.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about visiting my cousin Ellen and her family in Oklahoma. When we were all together, the kids were joyful. “But I felt it too,” I wrote. “The joy, I mean. It felt like home. It felt like….well, it felt like how I always feel when I’m with the Clark family. Like I belong.“
And that, of course, is all I wanted for Chris – and for the Clarks. To feel a sense of belonging to each other.
Late one night when many of the kids were still swimming in the pool and others were running out to get more ice cream, I laughed with Chris upstairs. “You must think my family is crazy!” I said, smiling.
“Not at all!” he said. “I think everyone in your family is just living their best lives. It’s awesome!”
I laughed at this, because he was right.
But as I thought about it, I realized that it wasn’t just about how the Clarks stock our fridge with dozens of different kinds of soda and always have at least three kinds of meat for dinner. It wasn’t just about the lack of reasonable bedtimes and the late-night runs to Target to get the perfect 4th of July attire. No, his statement was actually about how our Clark family “lives our best lives” in the most important way: through belonging to each other. Which is, of course, how Chris lives his life, too.
The thing is, Chris loved my family before he even met them, simply because they were my family. I know because he told me – both before and after the trip. “I hope they liked me,” he said as we left. I assured him that the love was mutual.
But it wasn’t new.
In fact, Chris was part of our big Clark family the moment he decided to love me, and love our kids. He didn’t need to do anything else to earn their love, just as they didn’t have to do anything different to earn his.
That’s how our family works. If you love a Clark, you’re one of us.