A month ago I would have thought this was an April Fool’s joke, too. But tomorrow, Ryan and I are taking off for a long weekend to see my family in New York City. It will be Ryan’s first time in New York and my first time back to my hometown since 2007.
It will also be the first time I’ve seen my family in twenty years.
The generation of estrangement broke last month when my brother died. The unfortunate backstory is all there in the link. It’s enough here to say we were always an emotionally messy family. Messy enough that after our mother died in the mid-1990s, I stopped talking to my 20-years-older brother and sister and moved away. First from Queens to Brooklyn, and eventually all the way to Chicago.
For 12 years, I’ve claimed my preference for the friendlier urban shores of Lake Michigan, chronicling a decade of my disdain for my NYC hometown on this blog. I almost moved back in 2007, but those plans fizzled. At the time, I would only have been able to afford Queens, my unsexy borough of origin, anyway. Even when I was living in Brooklyn, I used to say I’d live in that borough forever or leave New York City. Once I fled my former borough, the idea even of simply visiting Queens was too uncool to think about.
I made good on that promise to stay in Brooklyn or leave entirely. But how times have changed.
The last time I saw my nephew, “Little” John, he was twenty years old. Talking to him again for the first time in twenty years a couple of weekends ago, it was as if time had stood still. We both remembered how fraught our childhoods had been, and told each other we were happy to learn how we had transcended the issues that had troubled us. He’s forty now, and only four years younger than I am. But I told him no matter what, I can’t just call him “John.” That “Little” is still too ingrained in me.
My nephew, Sean, who tracked me down on Facebook, was in his teens all those years ago. Now he’s in his thirties with a wife and daughter, living not far from his brother, Rex, who is my age and lives with his own wife and daughter, and my sister-in-law, Barbara, all still in Queens. A little bit farther out on Long Island, my nephew, Brenden, lives with his girlfriend. He was eight when I last saw him. I’ll see him for the first time in his late twenties tomorrow evening when he picks Ryan and me up from LaGuardia.
Unlike the rest, Little John lives all the way out in Suffolk County. But I ran the farthest so I still win.
You’d think there would be my usual over-analysis in this post. A lot more navel-gazing and hand-wringing, which have been my hallmarks on here, or at least a major mea culpa about New York City versus Chicago. But it’s just not in me. What there has been a lot of, however, is this pressing sense that if my siblings and I, no matter how screwed up our relationships among each other were, had not walked away from each other two decades ago, I might not have left New York City–or even Queens–in the first place.
There have also been hours of sobbing to mourn what my family and I lost, and what I lost walking away from the city of my birth, interspersed with hours of unbridled and totally unexpected joy at having all those years of blanks finally filled in. Not just with memories. With people.
Having outlived my entire family of origin, my mother, brother, sister, and I will never again have the chance to work things out and be a family once more. But my nephews and I…their families…my sister-in-law… After a year and a half of expressing my disillusionment with Chicago and planning with Ryan a major move across the country to a new life in Los Angeles, as you might understand, none of that matters anymore.
Chicago will be as it will be, and I have to wonder what my opinion on this city or the one I come from would have been if my life had sooner re-contained the concept of family within it. Because it would be an awesome understatement to say that I suddenly feel infinitely less alone, and more in context with the world around me.
And loved. Because it’s been twenty years, and none of the other stuff matters anymore, either.
With bittersweet emotions, our Los Angeles relocation plans are cancelled. I cannot bear to be an extra 1,700 miles away from my newly reunited family. Nor can Ryan–as will be the subject of its own post, he reunited with his family in rural Illinois last month, after several years apart. In fact, the weekend after NYC, we’ll be attending his family reunion in Decatur. (And how about that for having no middle ground–a suddenly extended family that includes farm houses on one side and New York City apartment buildings on the other?)
We will remain in Chicago for now, but I would be lying if I said moving home to New York wasn’t on the table. I would also be lying if I said living in Chicago seems like a doable compromise for Ryan and me to have equal but not close access to both of our families. A four-hour drive from Chicago to Effingham is not all that less onerous than a two-hour flight from New York to St. Louis and a rental car into Illinois.
I know how selfish that may sound. My old friend, Alberto, once told me that native New Yorkers are like homing pigeons. We can leave, but that homing signal eventually goes off, and try as we might, it is inexorable. We are forced to follow it. It is just what is within us.
On the whole, I have loved my years in Chicago, my adopted hometown. I have also more recently laid in bed and cried until my eyes hurt wanting, yearning to go home. To that same old troubled, expensive, stressful place that I laughed, complained, and raged about. Because in the end, it’s where I’m from. You can take the boy out of New York City…
So I look forward to dragging Ryan on a whirlwind tour of my hometown. I look forward to seeing my family. And eventually, and as soon as possible–with Ryan in tow–I look forward to coming home. We’re thinking Forest Hills, the yuppie capital of Queens. I’m already getting razzed about that from my family. Just like the old days, they still tease me a lot.
But they got me on the spot. Welcome back.