How a reunion gave me my father back

On June 29, my children met a whole lot of relatives they didn’t know they had.

It was at a reunion of my father’s family. For various reasons, my sister and I saw very little of them when we were growing up. We did see his parents, who lived near my mother’s parents, and I loved being with them; their house was full of books and newspapers and photographs (pretty literally, it was hard to find a space to sit down or eat) and they always had wonderful stories to tell. But we saw his three siblings and their children only a handful of times, less as the years went by. When the email came about the family reunion, I said to my children: we are going.

My father died seven years ago, suddenly and unexpectedly, because of a mistake in a cardiac catheterization. He was fine and chatting one moment, dead the next. Losing him, especially with no chance for preparation or goodbyes, was devastating.

So much of how I see the world has to do with my dad. A writer and teacher who did much of his work from home, he was the one who was mostly with my sister and me when we were growing up. He taught us to love the things he loved best: books of all kinds, art (we spent countless hours in museums, and painting and drawing ourselves), music (he played the piano, and listened to everything from Chopin to the Beatles), and the beach. He loved to talk to strangers and learn about their lives, he loved history and politics, and he had a dry, Monty Python-esque sense of humor.

It has been particularly hard for me that my children don’t have him. I am doing my best to teach them what he taught me, because they are all things I want them to learn and love—but it’s not the same without him to teach them too.

So we made the trek through the traffic to New Jersey that Friday. We dropped our stuff at the hotel and made our way to my aunt’s beach club. And there they all were: my aunts and uncles and cousins, their spouses, their children. I introduced my children to person after person; arms opened and welcomed us.

I hadn’t seen some of them in decades; some of them I’d never seen at all. But it didn’t matter. They were all so familiar to me—because they were so like my father. Which isn’t surprising, of course; my aunts and uncle were raised with my father and loved the same things, and taught my cousins to love those things too. Everyone there shared my father’s history, stories and memories.

We had fun all weekend. We hung out at the beach together. We shared meals and swam and read books in the sun. Mostly, we talked. We brought each other up to date on our lives. We got to know each other—again, or for the first time. “Everyone is so nice,” my children said. We talked about when and how we could see each other again.

My father (far right) with his mother and siblings

At dinner on Saturday evening (which featured a really fun family quiz game), my children and I looked at old pictures together. My son pointed to a picture of my father as a child, dressed in a sailor suit and leaning against my grandmother, whose hand reached out to touch his. He was lanky, with intense eyes, delicate features and ears that stuck out. “He looks like Liam,” Zack said.

He was right. My youngest child looks remarkably like my father. And in his unbounded curiosity and willingness to talk to anyone and everyone, he acts like him too.

Suddenly I thought about Michaela’s talent for piano, Zack’s love of history and politics, Elsa’s artistic ability and Natasha’s dry sense of humor. They are all, in their own way, like my father. That’s the magic and gift of families: between genetics and what we pass on, knowingly and unknowingly, we become not just extensions of each other but part of a bigger whole.

I lost my father, but since the reunion I know that I haven’t lost him completely. Nor have my children. We have found his family, and we will never let them go—because in finding them, we found him.


The McCarthy clan