Until I was twelve, "family" to me meant the large extended family that got together every year on March 13, my great grandmother's birthday. That family disintegrated forty years ago today, the day she died in the bedroom she shared with my sister and my grandmother.
Her ninetieth birthday earlier that year turned out to be the last time, except for funerals, that we were al together. She and my great grandfather, who died a year before I was born, had had five children. Those children had produced Mom's generation, and I was second oldest of the dozen young cousins growing from the next lower branch of the family tree.
We gathered at the church in Hopland that year, coming in from all over California. It was a command performance. Everyone was expected to be there, and if there were any holdouts I was too young to know about it. All I knew was that my cousins and I were a year older than the last time we saw each other.
My great grandmother was born in 1871 and lived in an era when survival required people to be resourceful and self-reliant. She was every bit of that, a talented, hard-working woman who was a teacher and a writer as well as a wife and mother. The family lived on a ranch, and she cooked all the meals, sewed all the clothes, made the soap and tended the garden. Mom remembers her as being quiet, kind, and well-loved.
In the latter years she was the one person who could hold such a diverse family together. We had everyone from farmers to engineers coming from Eureka in the north, Los Angeles in the south, and points in between, all to honor her. Her ninetieth birthday was featured in the local paper, and I believe she might have even helped write the article.
After she died on that night in late August of 1961, "family," as I'd thought of it for all my twelve years, ceased to exist. Sometimes we would see some of the distant relatives, but the visits grew less and less frequent, even for those of us who lived close by.
And except for funerals, we were never all together again after she was gone. Without her, it didn't seem to matter any more. I doubt that any of us mourned the passing of the family as much as we mourned the woman who made us a family.