When I answered the phone, an unfamiliar voice said, “Hello, Chip? It’s Peter.”
“Peter who?” I asked.
“Your cousin Peter,” the voice replied.
I was about to answer, "I don’t have a cousin named Peter" when I realized, wait a minute, I do. This must be the long-lost cousin—my mother’s brother’s oldest son—I hadn’t seen or spoken to in more than 50 years.
The reason for that lengthy gap, and how it was bridged, is a story that could change your life, too. Bear with me while I tell you about a family rift that was finally healed.
My cousin Peter and I were both 14 years old when our families vacationed together for the last time in 1955. We spent two wonderful weeks in the summer on Barnegat Island, N.J., sunning, surfing and diving through the waves.
The next year my father suffered a fatal heart attack. After the funeral, my mother accepted an invitation from her brother in Florida to spend a few weeks with him while she recovered from her shock and sorrow and started to put her life back together. I stayed at school near Detroit, but my two younger brothers went with her. One of the treats my Uncle Harry arranged was a quick trip to Cuba. He had no idea of the Pandora’s Box he would be opening.
My mother fell head over heels in love with Cuba, the Cuban people and the exciting, exotic city of Havana. Property was incredibly cheap. So were labor and most essentials. She could hire a maid for a few dollars a month. There was no question that her "widow’s mite" would stretch a lot further in Cuba than it would in the U.S. After checking things out for a month, Mom returned home, sold what she could, packed what she needed, and flew back to Havana with my brothers to begin a new life.
I’ll save for another time the stories of her sojourn in Cuba—the triumphs she enjoyed, the tragedies she endured. They were the most exciting, most challenging, and most rewarding three years of her life—until Fidel Castro brought it all to a screeching halt.
My Uncle Harry, who had introduced Mom to Havana, was bitterly opposed to her decision to move there. When he failed to talk her out of going, he then declared that he would go to court to take her children from her. It was a threat she would not forgive. For as long as she lived she never spoke to him again.
Thirty-some years later, in an addendum to her last will and testament, Mom wrote: “Please tell Molly [her sister] I am truly sorry for any hurt I may have given her or she me—and I have long ago forgiven her. I am just sad that we never made up.”
Then she added: “My brother Harry is different. Don’t even tell him I am gone.”
Yes, Mom could keep a mad going for a long, long time.
Several years ago I decided it was long past time to bury these old animosities. So I resolved that I would reconnect with family members I hadn’t seen or spoken to in years.
One of the happy consequences of that resolution was a Wood family reunion I hosted for all of the brothers and cousins I could persuade to attend. Nearly two dozen people gathered on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and met relatives they had never known. I learned the difference between a first cousin once removed and a second cousin, and found out I had several of both: not to mention firsts who were twice removed, numerous third cousins and even more distant and confusing relationships.
Cousin Barbara brought me something more precious than memories: Photographs of my father as a child and young man. And even some of my father’s father, who had died before I was born. There he was, a young, mustachioed man, standing in front of the house he had built with his own hands.
Even more amazing, Barbara also had postcards an aunt had sent my father for several years when he was a young boy. There were cards commemorating Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, July 4th and Thanksgiving. These wonderful examples of the printer’s craft are nearly 100 years old. Several of the most beautiful are now mounted and displayed in our home.
Unfortunately, one guest who wasn’t invited—because I had no idea how to reach him (or even if he was still alive)—was my cousin Peter. It would take another three years before I learned where he lived and got a telephone number for him. I immediately called and left a message on his answering machine. I waited a week or so and called again. When another week went by with no reply, I thought I would never hear from him.
But two weeks after that, Peter returned my call. He explained that he and his wife had been vacationing in Europe and had just returned home when they got my message. We’ve chatted many times since then. We had a reunion in person when business brought him to Atlanta. And, more recently, my wife and I stayed with Peter and his wife during a visit to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. I think all of us would agree we had a wonderful time, with nary a cross word spoken. But, oh, what stories of family feuds and dysfunction we were able to share!
I learned that one of cousin Peter’s hobbies (actually, it’s more like an obsession) is to collect and repair antique watches. He is a self-taught master craftsman who knows more than I thought possible about old watches. Among the 3,000 or so timepieces in his collection Peter found absolutely perfect wedding gifts for two very dear friends. (When Jeremy reads this, he’ll know the source of that gorgeous 127-year-old silver pocket watch. Thanks again, Peter.)
So what does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? I’m glad you asked.
At the beginning of a new year, many of us make various resolutions. We vow all sorts of things: To stop smoking, to lose weight, to exercise more, to paint the back porch. And in almost every case (be honest now), most resolutions are discarded before we remember to write the new year in our checkbooks.
This time, let me urge you to do something different. Make a truly meaningful resolution—one that has the power to change your life and the life of someone else.
Resolve to heal an old wound with a former friend or family member. Ask forgiveness where appropriate; grant forgiveness where you should. Reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in years. The results can be amazing.
And who knows? One of them may have an ancient family memento that will become one of your most cherished possessions. You’ll never know until you try.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.