Sometimes I feel envious of my friends whose families live close by. A good friend of mine lives within several blocks of her brother and his family, and her parents are right down the street and around the corner. This translates into regular Saturday night pizza dinners at the grandparents' house, free baby-sitting and sleepovers at the cousins' house. And it means that when going for an evening walk around their neighborhood, they probably bump into their extended family members.
I have lived away from my extended family all of my adult life. And my husband, Bernie, also lives away from his family, so we only see our relatives a couple of times a year. Our kids have never known the luxuries of frequent visits to Grandma's or play dates with their cousins. It was the same for me when I was a kid. Our family made the 12-hour drive to Minnesota from Michigan once a year, seven of us piled into our Chevy Suburban; usually our dog came along too.
It was a long trip, but just like for my kids, time with my aunt, uncle and cousins was the highlight of my year. Extended time together, eating meals, seeing each other first thing in the morning with bed head and bad breath, staying up late talking to whoever is sleeping a few feet away -- these are bonding moments.
We flew to Mexico in August to spend time with Bernie's family, and then drove to the Pacific coast with his parents, his sisters, and their families. There is usually a little apprehension among the cousins at first because we don't see each other that often, and some of the younger kids aren't bilingual. (Bernie and I regret that our enthusiasm and discipline for teaching our daughters Spanish diminished as each one was added to our family.)
But this period of hesitation is very short lived. Kids find all sorts of ways to connect with one another, and iPods and music seem to be universal connecting tools. Road trips also help, especially when you face challenges like a flat tire and a broken air conditioner.
Bernie's sister is remarrying in October, and her fiancee's 15-year-old twins, Lucia and Gonzalo, came with us. This was our first time meeting them -- our first chance to really get to know them, and our kids had a blast. They went kayaking, sailing and did archery, but most of the time they were in the ocean. If Bernie and I weren't with them in the water, we could easily keep an eye on them from our lounge chairs because they were always in a group of about 10, floating back and forth over the waves. They ate together, wandered around together, got sunburned together and in a manner that seemed almost effortless to me, they bonded. Cousins in the making.
Our youngest daughter picked up some Spanish, but only what seemed most necessary for her: quesadilla con frijoles, frappé de mango (mango smoothie), tienes Dr Pepper?
At one point during our trip the kids were collecting disposable cups. Later I saw them sitting around the floor in a circle, trying to teach one another the cup song from "Pitch Perfect." We played Mexican Train Dominoes (although in Mexico they call the game Cuban Train, which we found amusing), and made homemade banana cream pie together. I should have had a second piece because it was that good.
Life brings change, and we adapt. We move forward. We grow and accept new realities. Next month it will be official. Our kids will have two new step-cousins. But for all the reasons that really matter, it's already a done deal.
• Becky Baudouin lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband and their three daughters. She blogs regularly at beckyspen.blogspot.com.