It's a family affair

Last month, my family did something that American families do less and less often these days. We got together.

My mom, my brothers and I gathered up our children and our partners and crammed ourselves into a big rental house in Huntington Beach. We came from Seattle, San Diego, Denver, Boston and Singapore. It was our first time together since my dad died last fall.

The logistics, as you can imagine, were complicated. For months, we had traded emails across an ocean and two continents, trying to nail down dates, location, housing and transportation for 14 people with busy, overscheduled lives. By the time we got there, we needed a vacation from planning our vacation.

Family reunions are a relatively new phenomenon. Just a few decades ago, most extended families lived only a few miles — or a few yards — apart. In small towns or villages, on adjoining farms, or even in triple-decker brownstones, three or four generations would stick close enough together to play a big part in each others' day-to-day lives.

Sure, there have always been prodigal daughters and sons who wandered away from home. But they were the exception. Now family members scatter like seeds, pushed and pulled apart by the unpredictable crosswinds of their careers.

Some will tell you none of that really matters anymore, because technology has made the world so much smaller. Family is just an email, text message or Skype session away. We all live in the same virtual village, they say, so we're free to wander without ever losing touch. But "losing touch" is more than just a turn of phrase. Real touch is hard to accomplish in cyberspace.

I thought about that a lot during our reunion. I thought about it when I woke up in the morning and picked my way through a roomful of sleeping cousins, sprawled out on blankets and sleeping bags across the living room floor. I thought about it when we shared beach towels and slathered each other with sunblock on the beach. I thought about it when my mom was showing her grandkids how to knead yams and sticky rice flour into dumplings. And I thought about it when we packed together in front of a TV screen to watch old video footage of our other reunions from years past.

As we traveled back in time together we laughed at how much we'd all changed; we also marveled at how much we'd stayed the same. There's something about the context of family that reveals the core of us: the part that lasts.

Did you ever meet a friend's or a lover's family for the first time and suddenly understand them on a whole new level? I think my kids see me differently, and more deeply, when they see me with the family that made me who I am. And now that they know the roots and the other branches of our family tree, I have to believe they understand themselves a little better, too.

On our last night together, we played touch football on the beach as the sun went down, then built a bonfire and gathered around it. One by one, we shared memories and stories about Dad, and talked about the way his hard work and his remarkable life had paved the way for all of us. His grandkids — his best and proudest legacy — huddled together and comforted each other, their cheeks wet with tears and shining in the firelight.

It was a fitting tribute, and the only memorial service we had for him. He would have wanted it that way. He never cared much for rituals and ceremonies and all that endless talking. But he cared about family. He was a quiet, methodical, unassuming man — but he loved his family fiercely. Seeing us all together was what he always enjoyed the most.

As the coals burnt down, we moved easily from tears to s'mores. We laughed, and teased each other, and debated the merits of dark vs. milk chocolate, and burnt marshmallows vs. browned. As the warmth of day gave way to the cool of night, I threw another log on the fire, and sparks swirled upward, joining the stars in the clear, dark sky.

Science tells us that stars are separated by millions of light-years of empty space, but we never think of them that way. Since the very beginning, human beings have grouped the stars together into constellations, and endowed them with a history and a meaning. Without that, they're just isolated points of light, burning alone until their flames die out. Somehow, that's never been enough for us.

After all, if they aren't part of something bigger, what's the point?