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Al Martinez

Time Pauses, Briefly, for a Family's Aging Eagles

November 12, 2001|Al Martinez

Somewhere between emotions of warmth and anguish dwells the family, a group of people drawn together by need and familiarity, and sometimes even love.

It is the nucleus of civilization, as historian Will Durant once said, the smallest village on Earth, a unit created for the survival of one another.

Family becomes especially important in times of crisis, its components rushing together from distant places to stand against whatever threatens them. And, according to some recent reports, we're doing a lot of rushing together these days.

I was thinking about this as I drove north up I-5, listening to country and western she-done-me-wrong music out of Bakersfield. I was one of those scurrying like a frightened dog to attend a family reunion in San Leandro, which is sort of lower Oakland.

I'm not big on school reunions because they just tell me I'm probably outliving my own generation, so I avoid them. Watching contemporaries deteriorate before one's very eyes doesn't make for a very entertaining evening. But family is different.


I have four sisters, three of whom were present at an El Torito restaurant on the shores of the Oakland Estuary. Under normal circumstances, I am emotionally incapable of eating franchise foods of any sort, but since this was considered San Leandro's finest dining establishment, I had no choice.

There were 17 assorted nieces, nephews and in-laws at the gathering, the senior member of which was my sister Emily, who is either 80 or close to it. She's the one who prays for me anytime there's a crisis in L.A., where she believes the devil keeps his summer home.

She used to pray for me while kneeling, but her knees went bad and she turned to standing-up prayers, which are also Vatican-approved. "They work," she said, in a manner that was both amused and firm. When I asked if she was still praying for me, she replied, "How do you think you've gotten where you are?"

That can be taken two ways. I haven't won the Nobel Prize for my journalism yet, but I'm still employed despite many changes in the old shop. So I'm not sure whether her prayers have worked for or against me, but I told her to keep praying just in case.

I also learned, to my surprise, that her real name is Mary, not Emily. This is peculiar because my middle sister, who came to the reunion from Reno, is also named Mary. It's like on the old Bob Newhart show, "This is my brother Darryl and this is my other brother Darryl."

No one thought to ask my mother, whose name was also Mary, why she gave two sisters the same name. I'm just glad she didn't name me Mary too. My younger sisters are Dolores and Helen. They escaped the Mary syndrome.


My older sisters were my saviors all of my growing-up years. They shinnied up trees to rescue me when I climbed too high and hunted me down when I wandered off. I was the kind of kid who always wondered about the other side of the horizon and set out on many missions of discovery before I was 5.

The Oakland Estuary is a finger of water off of San Francisco Bay that used to emit a foul odor. I got stuck in its slime during a low tide once, and it took two sisters and a strong friend to pull me out. They had to hose me off outside before anyone would let me in the house.

The estuary doesn't smell anymore and, in fact, glistened in the moonlight as we sat talking and eating burritos, or whatever, at El Torito.

We discussed the peculiar elements of our family, of which there were many, including a stepfather, old Crazy Harry, whose tendency to slap me upside the head probably loosened my brains.

I was a major disappointment to him because I had no interest in growing up to be a hod carrier, a drywall plasterer or something in a similar real-man classification.

My whole life was geared toward a writing career (probably due to the brain-loosening), which he considered in the same category as crocheting or tatting. I tried to tell him how Hemingway fought the bulls, but all I got was a slap, just above the ear. Now whenever I read Hemingway, my ear hurts.


The main topic of our reunion conversation was time. The years had already taken the husbands of Emily and Mary, and while the remaining senior members of the family, including me, are still in reasonably good shape, we are aware of what a friend calls the aging of eagles.

We decided that time more than terrorism is what brought us together for this first reunion in a decade. The seasons seem to pass more quickly than they once did, the summers and autumns merging into a single headlong rushing day. It was good that we met again, even if it was in a franchise restaurant.

I went over the reunion in my head as I drove home on I-5. A soft rain fell like a veil of memories just north of the Grapevine, adding an aura of nostalgia to the weather. I was glad I went to the reunion. And I was glad that I had big sisters. They were the pillars of my early life. My sister Mary and my other sister Mary.


Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He is at

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