It's Who We Are

By Tom Froehlich • January 29, 2015

I saw the lights of Los Angeles twinkling below me like the Christmas I had left behind. While other passengers watched movies, played games on ipods and napped in the darkness of the cabin I replayed the Christmas I had shared with my family. My eyes welled up with tears more than once in the course of the four-hour flight. Part of it is because I am a 6’3’, 235 pound (Hey! That’s what it says on my driver’s license! Don’t mess with the DMV!) cry baby. The other reason is that this holiday I became even more aware of the incredible family I come from.

It began with my older brother Rick, driving three hours in a snowstorm to surprise me at the airport when I arrived in Milwaukee, to drive me to our mom's house where our family would be gathering for Christmas. I could have started bawling then, but us big sensitive types need to choose our moments of emotional collapse carefully or we could end up in the loony bin. Frankly, there at times, the loony bin doesn’t sound all that bad. Three squares a day, a room of ones own and basket weaving on Tuesdays. Things could be worse! Anyway, the point is that I was very touched by his gesture.

My younger brother Bill’s family arrived a few days later and my twenty-one year old niece ran into my mom’s house giving me a big hug and said, “Uncle T, I am sooo excited!!’ I asked her why, thinking it was perhaps about a new ipad or pair of boots or some other gift, but I was wrong. Instead she answered, “Because we all get to be together!” Her brother echoed her sentiments at full volume, as my mom would say, “As if he’s giving a sermon.” His voice carries. So does mine. Hey! We have important things to say and want to make sure everyone can hear us…whether they choose to or not.

I became, “Uncle T”, years ago when my nephews, my older brother’s three sons, decided I wasn’t really like a regular grown up (intuitive kids) and was more like a twenty-year-old biker guy. The reality is that I have been on a motorcycle once in my life and was terrified. Many would even claim that it is questionable whether or not I should have been issued a driver’s license. And last summer I was thrown from my Trek mountain bike when I was hit by some fat-assed, bleached blonde, tweaker bitch from the valley as I was biking back from the beach. Perhaps some of you may think that description is somewhat judgmental. And perhaps you will change your mind when I mention that as I lie in the street, bleeding she rolled down her window and yelled, “Do you want me to stop?!” Yes, really. I suggested that since she hit me with her piece of shit 1998 Chevy Malibu that might be a kind gesture. At that point her needle-dicked, Michael Bolton haired boyfriend who I also believed to be a tweaker, just because I can, got out of the piece of shit car and tried to stand me up in the middle of the street as I was blacking out. Anyway, based on those experiences, I think it best I not own or drive a motorcycle, Harley or otherwise. None-the-less, apparently based on my ever-present coolness my nephews dubbed me “Uncle T.” and it just stuck.

The three of them walked through the door in succession like Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie, and crushed me with hugs and huge grins, and a simple, “Hey T!” “Hey T!” “Hey T!”

Aunts, uncles, cousins and their children would be arriving the following day for our family Christmas celebration. We now have dinner at a nearby restaurant as our family has now grown to over thirty. My cousin Lizzie and her husband arrived with their newborn son, the most recent addition to our family. Lizzie, may or may not be the same cousin I made out with back in the day. No, we are not from Kentucky and yes, you are correct, I am gay. The fact that I am also a recovering alcoholic may fill in a few of the blanks for you. As far as Lizzie goes? Well…she’s just kind of nuts. I adore her!

My cousin Paul arrived with his endearing smile and warm embraces. One of his sons just returned from attending college in Japan. His other son just graduated from college and is taking a month to travel through Europe. They are both as demonstrative as their dad.

Aunts and uncles arrived, all now in their early eighties, followed by more cousins and their families. Cocktails were served, glasses clinked and dinner served.

As dinner came to a close, I faintly heard through the cacophony of conversation and laughter, my mom beginning to sing the words to the song “Edelweiss”, a song she has been sining since she was a little girl. You may know it from “The Sound of Music”. We know it because we sing it at all of our family weddings. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that we are of German descent. It’s just part of who we are. Slowly, voice after voice joined together until the dining room was filled with our family’s voice celebrating Christmas and our coming together.

Many of these traditions began with my grandfather who was raised on a farm by German immigrant farmers on the Door County peninsula. After earning a law degree and starting his law practice he built a small shingled cottage on the shores of Lake Michigan where Door County lies. This is the place we spent our summers. The place I learned to hate my bothers, love my cousins and love my brothers all over again. The same place that my nieces and nephews spend their summers with one another, as well as, my cousins children, all of whom we call nieces and nephews because we would never get that second cousin once removed thing straight and it just doesn’t matter.

These are the threads that are woven into the tapestry of who we are. And these are the things I miss most living all the way across the country in California. But no matter how far, I know that I am a part of something greater than myself. I am a part of this intricately woven and amazing tapestry of that is my family.

Soon my plane landed and I was back in my Venice apartment unpacking. In my suitcase I found a small box wrapped in Christmas paper. Evidently someone had slipped it into my suitcase without my noticing. I tore off the paper and inside, nestled on a square of cotton was a flat chunk of slate, about the size of matchbook hanging from a leather cord. The number 2-3-0-1 was painted on it in gold. Included was a note that read, “I found this on the beach after you left this summer and it reminded me of you. It’s the address of the cottage so you can always find your way.” It was signed, “Love, your Big Bro.”

My eyes filled with tears. Part of it is the fact that I am a great big crybaby. The other part is that 2301 S. Lake Michigan Drive is where my heart lies and always will. It is the place I learned to hate my bothers, love my cousins and love my brothers all over again. It is where my family became the family that I have come to love more than anything. They are irreverent and vulgar and kind and funny and thoughtful and loving. They are amazing. It is simply who we are.

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