Fringe benefits of estrangement

I walked through the hot, still streets of Jerez with Sema snoozing in her sling. At times it seemed as if everyone in the city must have been asleep too, and then I would pass a tavern and a wave of mellow conversation would drift out on to the street. It was sunny and warm, and I was in no rush – I was just going to take a tour of a sherry bodega. The previous night, our dinner had ended with a plate of creamy desserts and glasses of sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry. I can’t touch any dairy at all because Sema is allergic, so I had the glass of sherry. It turned out to be dessert enough on its own; it was intensely raisiny, with a flavor that seemed to be endlessly unfolding. We were sitting in an open courtyard at the side of a restaurant that let out onto a square presided over by a church. Overhead, small birds soared and chattered busily while down below my children and their cousins did the same thing, only earthbound. The skies were just deepening into night, although it was 10 pm. But I am getting ahead of myself.

[photo credit: Angela Wilde] That’s me off to the side, walking Sema in her sling and the head of the family Gerrit-Jan holding forth in the foreground.
I received the email late at night, in November of last year. In it, my second cousin Annette Wilde proposed a family reunion. This is something I just learned – first cousins share a grandfather and second cousins share a great grandfather. Cousins once removed are removed from one another by a generation. I know most of my first cousins – the descendants of my grandfather Max Wilde – but I hadn’t met a lot of my second cousins or their children/parents (my second cousins once removed…?).

My grandfather had two brothers, Leo Wilde and Clemens Wilde. Annette is the granddaughter of Leo Wilde, and she and her father Gerrit-Jan had chosen Jerez, Spain as the location of this proposed reunion, to be held in June, because “Wildes love sherry.” I was pregnant, and did the math – the baby would be 5 months old for the trip, not a bad age to travel since food wouldn’t be an issue.

[Photo credit: Angela Wilde] Nuria Wilde signs a copy of the Nederland’s Patriciaat presented to Sema (the youngest member of the family) by Gerrit-Jan (the eldest member of the family).
My father wore a signet ring from his family on the pinky finger of his left hand (although I noticed that many of my relatives wore theirs on their ring fingers) but he was dismissive whenever anyone asked him about it. “Oh, I come from a long line of lunatics and alcoholics,” he would say, waving the question away. A painting of the family crest, a leaping stag, was consigned to hang above the toilet, summing up his esteem for his family name. (In spite of this, he took the trouble to make sure my name was registered in the Nederland’s Patriciaat, a blue volume listing the patrician families – influential but not noble – of the Netherlands.) He did not know many members of his family aside from my aunt Georgina. It was only much later in his life that he met his cousins Leo and Francsica (my second cousins once removed, if I have understood the terminology correctly). He was really pleased to know them and they saw each other several times before his death. My cousin Angela found my father quite out of the blue shortly before he died, the daughter of his estranged brother. Estrangement is a great theme in the stories of my father’s family, and one of the kinder manifestations of its dysfunction, if I’m honest. Also, it carries the fringe benefit of surprise relatives at every turn.

Of course, the other great theme is the Unreliable Narrator, and no one was more unreliable with the details of a story than my father. He told a story of his brother trying to kill him in Geneva and I understand that there is a version of the story that tells it the other way around! To this all I can do is shrug. Families are that way.

This is all to say that I didn’t really know what to expect of such a family reunion. I did know, though, that I felt strongly in the moments after reading Annette’s message that I didn’t want my children to grow up as my father had, isolated from their family. Moreover, after my mother’s family left China in 1937, the Liberation of 1949 dropped a heavy curtain between them and the life (and family) that they had left behind. In light of this, turning my back on an extended family that was willing to meet seemed foolish. I booked a room in the hotel that Annette recommended for three nights and wrote her that I’d be attending with my two sons and a baby girl that was still on her way.

And this is how I came to find myself stepping off the sunny, silent street in Jerez into a courtyard that was shaded by a thick canopy of grape leaves. I had felt a bit odd bringing a baby along with me on a tour of a winery but I needn’t have worried, as the only other people who showed up were a couple with a young child fast asleep in a stroller! We turned in unison as a large door swung slowly open and a young woman in a white lab coat summoned us inside. Stepping through the door, we found ourselves in a massive, vaulted chamber with rows of barrels lined neatly among the pillared arches. A sweet, yeasty smell presided over the bodega, cool due to its thick walls, with thick woven mats of grass blocking the sun and sandy floors that could be dampened to maintain humidity. Our guide led us through the ruminating barrels, stacked three high so that it felt slightly as if we were in a city of barrels, walking the empty silent streets, only these were cool and dark. “The spiders we keep,” our guide was saying, “as they help us by… eating… little tiny animals.” The cobwebs swayed in the faint air currents as we walked past.

The beautiful, glistening slabs of fish in the market made me wish I’d rented a place with a kitchen rather than stay in a hotel.

Ali was mystified by my determination to go on this trip with the children. It was bad timing, to be sure – I should by rights stay very close to the garden during the summer months because the hot dry weather in Antalya means that watering the plants and animals is a major preoccupation. He didn’t want me to take Sema away for so long, so far away, so young. He didn’t understand why I would want to meet people I didn’t even know but just happened to be related to. I thought about it a lot after I got back home. My relatives and I all come from the same background so we don’t need to explain it to one another. All of the themes of the family stories – the rejections, abandonment, betrayals, and addictions (and this is only on my personal branch of the family tree!) – we share, in our unhinged history, but in spite of it all we gathered in a series of meals that were positively convivial.  We defied the petty quarrels that had preceded us, by laughing and comparing notes, exchanging stories and letting our children loose to play with one another.

After our stroll through the land of the barrels, we were taken to a tiled room lined with bottles and stood before a bar. Our guide opened bottle after bottle of sherry, explaining pairings and discussing the grapes. She excitedly explained to us how the same grapes treated differently would produce vastly different end products. Apt, I thought to myself, as I tipped my glass towards my face and sniffed (I’m not a terribly good drinker, so I smelled more deeply than I drank). Our common ancestor, Clemens Julius Maria Wilde was born in the Netherlands, as were his three sons, but two of the brothers strayed, eventually settling in England and Spain. Today, the family members who gathered in Jerez live in seven different countries. I kept an open mind as I smelled and tasted the sherry, but my sweet tooth won and I took a bottle of Pedro Ximenez back to the hotel with me.

Apropos of nothing at all, I encountered some truly majestic ice cubes while in Spain. And also, there is a soda called Bitter Kas that tastes just like Campari, only with no alcohol. It’s pretty great!

The boys now and adore one of their second cousins who is just Baki’s age, but met an entire branch of the family from the Netherlands that neither they nor I had ever met. I remember dimly seeing a birth announcement sent to my aunt Georgina announcing the arrival of twins shortly after my father died and these twins, now 9 years old and their elder brother, 11, were the children chasing Kaya through the square that night. Baki discovered, to his delight, that he had another relative his own age and they spend days talking to one another as fast as they could get the words out. By the time we dispersed after our final dinner together, the boys were truly saddened to have to say goodbye and it was with heavy hearts that we said our final farewells and got on our early plane home. Feeling the tug of sadness, I was reminded of my father telling me gently that it is a good sort of pain to feel blue at the end of a journey because it means that it has touched you. I repeated it to the boys (“Do you know what Grandpa would say to me when I was feeling sad about leaving somewhere?…”) as we soared over the streets of Jerez, bound for home and their father who had missed them so.

Back home, I did my best to replicate the beloved Spanish tortilla that I had enjoyed for breakfast every day. We ate it with the ham that Baki had so fallen in love with, nibbled on olives from the marketplace, and ended our meal with a sip of sherry from Jerez. I raised my glass to my cousins of one degree or another. What had brought us together was our shared past, but the great discovery of the trip was that we have a future together, as members of a family. And that is why, it came to me, it had been so important to go.