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My View: Phone calls fortify our family bonds

My View: Phone calls fortify our family bonds

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I suspect this happens to many of us.

Weddings, reunions, baby namings and – too often – funerals bring us back in contact with family members we haven’t heard from in years.

With all the best intentions, we vow to keep in touch. But we don’t.

Time at home during the pandemic prompted me to break that pattern and, just like that, call relatives in Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Georgia.

With profound sadness, some calls couldn’t be made. My parents, Sylvia and Joe, have both passed. So – way too soon – have Barbara, my wife of 35 years, and my younger brother David. Even so, I’m blessed with a full and diverse array of cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws and a brother who juggles while maintaining a steady stream of bad jokes.

Those relatives were waiting to hear from me. They just didn’t know it.

“What a great surprise, Peter,” said Deana, my cousin in Chicago. “It’s so nice to hear your voice.”

As the calls progressed, we discussed grandchildren, health, jobs or retirement, and the impact of the pandemic on our everyday lives. It immediately became clear that humor was a key emotional safety valve for many of us.

My cousin Mitzi, divorced and raising three sons, was dating Ira more than 50 years ago, when she tried to impress him by making veal parmesan for dinner.

“I took one look at Bob (her oldest son), and from the look on his face I knew there was something coming,” Mitzi said. “Sure enough he blurted out: ‘What’s this? We never had this before.’ Ira didn’t say anything, but Lord knows what he was thinking.” The happy ending here is that Mitzi and Ira were married for 48 years before he passed away three years ago.

Even in death, nobody makes me prouder than David, my younger brother. He had problems putting the pieces together as a young man, but through hard work and determination – and by just being himself – found his mojo and became a well-known and highly respected guy around Utica, where he was a corrections officer. “Humor, humor, his sense of humor,” said Kim, David’s wife and a journalism professor. “He was a one-man vaudeville show. He was so good at lightening the mood.”

A summer highlight was the annual no-holds-barred wrestling match between my cousins Murray and Marty, with the losing brother getting thrown into Canandaigua Lake. Years later, Murray, an art teacher, proudly showed us around his animal farm. Marty moved from Atlanta to Biloxi, Miss., to be minutes away from his favorite gambling casinos. They, too, have since died.

No one is more kind and self-effacing than Barbara, my sister-in-law, whose career was devoted to nursing. She once told me she tried to make every patient she dealt with feel a little better every time she walked in the room.

Before the pandemic hit, my partner, Elaine ,and I spent a day in New Orleans with my brother Harry – he of the bad jokes – and his wife, Nancy. By the time we capped a never-to-forget day with dinner and dancing at a great Cajun restaurant, Elaine and Harry were like old buddies. At the same time, she now understands why I limit him to two jokes per phone call.

Reminisce. Reflect. Rejoice. You promised to stay in touch. Now do it.

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