Life is Sweet

When I was a child, my family meant everything to me. From the moment I was brought home from the hospital I was surrounded by my parents, my grandparents, and my aunts and uncles. My older brother and I were at that time the only kids, but cousins began to appear a short four years later.

When our family moved en masse to California from Kansas in 1948, they bought a piece of land in a tiny area near Ventura that was called Nyeland Acres. I think the neighborhood was only about five square blocks in those days, and it contained a collection of quaint houses that had been built by young families after the men started coming home after World War II.

One-by-one the men in our family built houses on this landa family compoundbeginning with my grandparents' house. In the meantime, everyone rented little places in the neighborhood. By the time I came along, they were building our house, which we moved into when I was two...

We were a close, happy family with strong traditions that stemmed from our Austrian ancestry. My grandfather was basically a Hobbit; his only job was to putter around his garden, work on the cars with my dad, and keep the house clean while my grandmother worked as City Clerk at Oxnard City Hall. In those days no one had even considered that men could be househusbands while their wives worked, but that's the arrangement my grandparents preferred.

Weekends were almost always spent outside. In those days southern California really was a paradise most of the time. My grandfather had planted a willow tree in his front yard, training the limbs with 4x4 Y-posts to serve as a covered area with arches that he cut into the thick fronds as doorways. It was like a room under there, dark, cool, and private. Inside sat a picnic table, a card table and chairs, and homemade Adirondack chairs. The adults played games of penny-a-point Hearts, Spades, and 5-Card Stud, swatted at flies, drank beer, and told jokes while we kids nibbled at the picnic spread, ate watermelon slices, and played in the grass. Sometimes we all went through the gate between their yard and ours, and the grownups played badminton or horseshoes. Often at night we had bonfires around which we sang songs like Mr. Sandman and My Blue Heaven, my talented family's voices joining together in harmonies while my grandmother's coloratura soprano voice rose above and floated upon the smoke into the night sky. These are some of my fondest memories.

Our family would have been pretty progressive if it were around today, but considering it was the 1950s, the diversity I grew up with is mind boggling. Besides my grandfather being a househusband, there were other elements. There was my "Uncle" Wes, who moved from Kansas with the family. He wasn't a blood relative, but he might as well have been. He was a gorgeous, gifted dancer in Hollywood, with black curly hair and cornflower blue eyes. He was gay, and he and his gay and lesbian friends and, later, his partner, were always at our family get-togethers. When my mom took a part-time job to help my dad make ends meet, it was my Uncle Wes who babysat me. It was also he who nursed me through my bout of rubella when I was five (he had been trained as a Navy nurse during the war).

I had relatives from a couple of different races and some from other countries. My aunt had even been divorced, so we also had a blended family in that aspect. And because we were a show business family, there were musical parties at which everyone danced and laughed together regardless of skin color, or anything else that the world outside would have found objectionable. Extremely liberal for the times. But my family had a code: Are you a good person? Honest? Friendly? That's all that matters.

The point of all this personal background is to tell you that all I've ever really wanted was to recreate my early family life for my own kids, and later, for Nettl's and my blended family, which includes five kids between us.

Yesterday was Heather's 20th birthday, so we decided to have a simple cookout, grilling burgers and brats and serving them with all the trimmings. Lauren came up for the weekend and Heather and Brian (her boyfriend) brought his brother Dominick. Joel was here (unfortunately Micah wasn't, he's in England until tomorrow), and we invited Dr. Kielbasa over, as usual. Like my Uncle Wes when I was a child, the Doctor has been adopted into our family; the kids just think of him as their funny, rather flamboyant uncle who does a great Carol Channing impersonation.

There was food, music, jokes, and laughter, dancing, and a whole lot of funexactly what I remember from my childhood, only now, Nettl and I are the "grandparents" (we have no grandkids yet, but I'm sure that's coming eventually). It was the best time I've ever spent with my family, and it reminded me of how grateful I am for them.

You know, the Buddha was right. Every happiness I seek is already inside of me; all I have to do is go in and find it, recognize it and own it. Over time, as I've mourned the dissolution of my childhood family, I've slowly awakened to the new one that has been given to me, and I'm so grateful. I'm now looking forward to grandchildren, not so that I carry pictures around in my wallet, but so that I can give them the best things I remember from my own childhood. They will come to their grandparents' house, where there will be music and dancing, picnics, laughter, and where they'll grow up with a diversity that will serve as a microcosm of the larger Family of Humankind.

Life is sweet indeed.