Monday, May 19, 2014

My Tasmanian Cousin

Families can be an odd collection of individuals. We think of them as some unified entity but while there may be some strand of shared genetic code among its members a family can have a stunning amount of diversity.

My family has always been a bit of mystery to me. My parents, both German, left the country shortly after the war and while my mother kept contact with some of our family members, I don’t think my father ever looked back. If two of his brothers had never joined him in Canada – my parents first stop in their multinational journey – I doubt he would have made any effort to see them.

In fact looking back over my own life most of my experience with my extended family could easily be fit in a fortnight with several days to spare – three trips to Germany and Switzerland (one of which as an infant) and a couple afternoon visits from aunts and uncles on their way to vacations in Vegas.

So it came as a surprise to get an email from a cousin I had never met before – both of us in our 50’s. He described a whirlwind trip from Tasmania to Nicaragua that included a brief overnight stop at LAX. “Could we have dinner together?” I was filled with excitement, and I confess a little fear.

My parents both gone, I had come to accept the mythology of their stories, my own social/intellectual origins. I was going to meet someone with stories and probably facts that intersected with my own. They could verify or discredit them – yes leave it to me to overthink things into a potential existential crisis.

When we finally met, I think a dance unfolded between us. Yes somewhere in our cells were that shared strand of DNA, but could we “like” one another, make a social as well as biological connection? We traded quick summaries of our lives – but 50 years in maybe 20 lines of text? In his favor, I knew my Australian cousin was well traveled and an academic – both plusses for open mindedness, curiosity, and a sense of adventure. Still there are things we filter from our families, perhaps thinking them more sensitive than they really are, but also sometimes a way of steering clear of unwinnable confrontations of beliefs, politics, and propriety.

My wife and I sitting next to my cousin in a Westchester dinner, I realized that I was the “American Cousin” and what trepidation that must cause. I’m sure a few Google searches eased my cousin’s mind enough to have dinner, but lets face it despite the flag waving bravado my countrymen may have for our land of opportunity and rugged individualism – that can come across a bit cocky. Many – rightfully – look at us as arrogant and opportunistic, often with a reckless disregard for others shrouded in a righteous self-serving belief system. Yeah, there’s a reason the “ugly American” is a “thing”, hopefully I could show my cousin that I wasn’t a part of that.

So we danced, sharing stories of our most recent ancestors – my father finding the heart of the GroƟherzog lost in the war, his desertion, and his bookish nature that attracted my mother to him. When my wife left the table for a moment, my cousin turned to me, “You know,” he said with a confidential tone, “our grandfather had a bit of a reputation.” “I know,” I responded, “I have a few pictures of his girlfriend in the Schwarzwald – my sister had a great time when she visited them so many years ago.” And with that step, we knew we could speak more freely about our family, it quirks, its dark sides, its flaws – as all of them do.

I brought along my father’s journal that he penned when he was 19. Written in German (of course) my father also included many photos of the family and people he knew at the time – especially, or so it seemed – the women he had loved. I doubt my father ever expected to have his diary read by his nephew and son, but it brought him back to life for me, and charmed me with it’s romanticism as well as it’s bluntness. “She and I had many love adventures,” read one such caption – "Liebesabenteuer" – perhaps that’s a common German phrase, but its translation delights me. So many of our stories really are our Love Adventures.

As the dinner closed we took my cousin to his Hotel and decided to have a nightcap and see the pictures we had brought along to share. The lobby was full of activity, and the bar filled with patrons dressed mostly in black with a preference for lace, leather, lycra, and latex. How could this nondescript corporate airport hotel be such a magnet for LA’s fetish scene? And, oh what a hilarious backdrop as we recounted more family histories, full of elopements, rekindling old flames, affairs and remarriages - love adventures indeed.

As we crossed the midnight hour, my wife decided that to really commemorate the evening we should take a picture, not just of ourselves, but with some of the fellow hotel guests in their slinky, sexy finery. As she left to find some volunteers, my cousin asked, “Do you think she’ll be successful?” I retorted that knowing my wife, and my experience with people who dress to be seen, that I had no doubt she would be. What I failed to say, though probably still evident, that this is certainly one of the reasons I married her.

Before long we were joined by Mistress Precious, Sir Nick, and their entourage. Mistress Precious was dressed in an elaborate latex bodysuit complete with black latex ruffled collar. She asked my cousin if he wanted to touch, offering her knee. Sir Nick, a tall lanky gentleman made taller and lankier by his 6” heals, offered up praises of Australian whip makers, thanking my cousin’s countrymen – and perhaps revealing an untapped market for the Australian whip industry.

Suddenly we were retelling our stories, showing off my father’s journal and grandfather’s medal. In turn, we were told about DomCon – the conference of professional dominatrices celebrating its 11th year - as well as common misconceptions about the BDSM lifestyle. Sir Nick even invited us to stick around and check out the next day’s workshops.

My cousin charmed them all. His simple statement, “I am a scientist,” the ultimate flirtation – the Aussie notes in his voice friendly and inviting, while the German undertones gave it a certain veracity and authority. And to be honest, he charmed me too. The existential fears evaporating and leaving me thinking about the over 50 years of familial diaspora and how crazy it was to let it last so long.

Now I dream of traveling, to an old homestead in Germany and a mysterious green box containing still more stories, to Tasmania to continue our conversation and dance, and to elsewhere on the globe to hear more stories of shared histories and of course, Love Adventures.

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