I learned family relations by correspondence course.
My mother was English, wooed away to the exotic United States by a handsome American soldier. She left behind a working class family rich in shared history, exuberant in their love and wry in their humor.
My father, on the other hand, came from a back-woods Idaho family that went to some lengths to keep away from each other. So for many years the notion of "grandparent" was rather vague to me -- something about people like me who lived somewhere else.
I visited England with my mother and brother the summer between fourth and fifth grade. Life has never been the same. That great family -- Smiths and Gibbings with a Barratt here or there -- pulled me into their lives as if I had never left the old sod. Throughout the rest of my life, my contact with family was via letters, phone calls and later e-mail.
I've been especially close to two person, my Uncle Harry and my Cousin Les. And, typical of my family, neither of those names is entirely accurate. Harry was my mother's cousin but raised like a brother -- and he often went by George. Les is the son of one of my mother's other cousins and is actually Leslie.
Not to worry. Harry kept me in stitches as a young man and in awe as an aging Baby Boomer. Childless, he "adopted" me a as a favored nephew and became one of those magical uncles of which novels are made. He was a cameraman for the BBC and travelled the world. When he could, he would drop in on us -- something Cecile and I were later able to do with him. Our daughter, Gillian, visited him as a teen and still keeps in close contact.
Back during my first youthful visit to England, my brother and I were often shooed out of the house so Mom and her parents could visit. Our guide to English children's life was cousin Les. It was wonderful. Spectacular. I learned to play football -- the proper FA version -- and even a bit of cricket. We explored London parks and even learned how to swear ("Bloody hell") like a Brit. And I became addicted to Cadbury chocolate. And when Les, brother Mark and I ran even a bit short of mischief, Uncle Harry was there to kindly lead us all astray.
It all seems like ancient history now. The updates have become frequent with the advent of the Internet, but Les is as gray as I am now and managing a growing family in Milton Keynes. Yesterday he invited the whole clan over to mark the 85th birthday of Uncle Harry.
Maybe "Haitch" (as the family calls him) really is magic. He certainly doesn't seem just 15 years short of a century. His eyes gleam, his hearing is sharp and he can out-jokes the best of us.
He was in his element as Cecile and I joined his brother's grown sons and herd of offspring drank beer, ate more food than was good for.
The hugs and kisses were real -- not a series of Xes on the bottom of a letter. And when we said farewell, it was "until later," not "goodbye."
At one time I envied friends with "close family." Silly me. It took me nearly a lifetime to fully comprehend that "closeness" has little to do with physical distance.