Guest post alert: This week, my sister Liz Witherspoon shares memories of a friendship between our mom and uncle that has inspired the next generation of cousins to form tight bonds of their own.
As the wheels touch down in Buenos Aires, my phone pings with Whatsapp pictures and messages from my cousins and sister in South America taking selfies with wide grins and fruity cocktails. I’d be meeting up with them soon–eight of us across three families. How do eight middle-aged cousins and siblings end up spending their precious vacation time together? It all started with my mom Wilma and her brother Paul. Their relationship was a touchstone for our families and has inspired decades of close sibling and cousin relationships among the next generations. We are second-generation friends.
My mom Wilma always had a confidant and comic foil in her younger brother and best friend Paul. He embodied everything that my mother was not: irreverent, risk-taking, theatrical, and wickedly funny. My mother, schooled by nuns and appalled by profanity, would stalk the Hallmark aisles each year searching for the perfect dirty card for Uncle Paul’s birthday. A tradition that continued well into their senior years.
I relish my 1980s memories of mom answering the long-distance phone calls from Uncle Paul. She snaked the long phone cord coil until it stretched and disappeared around the corner of the kitchen into the dining room. There she was, sitting with her legs swinging over a chair, laughing and talking like a teen girl sharing secrets, completely oblivious to her five kids creating the chaos we often did.
Our annual summertime drive from Kentucky to visit Uncle Paul and their younger sister Aunt Susan in their New England homes was the highlight of the year for my mom. They would happily drink gin & tonics and share stories as her strong Boston accent became more pronounced by the second drink. Uncle Paul honored mom with a large family barbeque and reunion every summer on Cape Cod, hosting over 40 members of our extended family often including Aunt Susan and at times their oldest brother, Uncle Donald, would join as well. My siblings and cousins disappeared into the basement or the screened in porch to play Risk, Sorry, Monopoly, watch TV, gobble up snacks, and then spend countless hours at the beach. In the winter my cousins taught us how to ice skate and ski in their flooded back yard, laughing at our terror from never having been on snowy slopes before.
I loved the way Uncle Paul said my mother’s name, “Wiiiii..lma” in a very sly, low voice with a sideways glance as if he was expecting her to say or do something very bad at any minute. She would erupt in giggles and laugh, “Oh, Paul!” while swatting his arm. Paul was an entrepreneur and salesman at heart always quick with a joke and a laugh; somebody who made everybody feel special and important. Above all, our mom.
Having a place to go is home. Having someone to love is family. Having both is a blessing.Irish Blessing
On my mom’s Cape Cod visits Uncle Paul took her to see shows and when he took a turn on the stage in retirement, she and my dad drove 16 hours to see his debut. They restarted an annual reunion with their two siblings ,as well as several retired first cousins, complete with matching lobster slippers and near-constant laughter.
But like our grandmother, Uncle Paul and my mother eventually were struck with dementia and Alzheimer’s. In their 70s, they began a decline that we all noticed in different ways, my mom forgetful with dates, times and places or retelling stories. And my uncle, always sharp, painfully aware of how his mental faculties were being slowly eroded, taken over by this insidious disease. Thanks to their wonderful spouses, they still made annual pilgrimages to New England for our family party with seafood and cousins.
Their final visit in July 2014 marked the 50th wedding anniversary for my parents, and they shared hugs and a few laughs at the celebration on the Cape. Uncle Paul spontaneously rolled up his pant legs to wade into the warm, late-summer waters of Brewster Bay and we looked on from the shore. A few months later, my mom suffered the stroke that confined her to a wheelchair. By winter my uncle’s health declined more and we lost him soon after. Eight years later Uncle Paul is still missed, but the next generation of friendship is in full bloom. Their relationship showed us what it means to show up, to support, to tease and laugh and be both a sibling and a friend.
I look down to check those WhatsApp messages and pictures…the dinner plans are underway with a stop at the pool. We are on our third cousins’ trip in three years, each one building a layer of foundation for a lifetime of memories. Thanks to Paul and Wilma.
Liz her sister Monica and several cousins enjoying Argentina in February 2023
Julia ~ What a wonderful write-up on your Mom and her brother Paul ! We will always remember the good times we spent with your family and how close-knit you all were. We also enjoyed the family reunions on Cape Cod and you all made us feel like members of your family.
Thank you Mollie. The Hoorneman family has always been family to us Brady’s. So many wonderful Cape Cod memories and as Liz shared, new memories being made by he next generation. Love to you and Evan! Julia
What wonderful memories and your continued family get togethers.
Some of the memories I remember fondly.
Thank you for sharing. Good to see all of you having a great time.