Weekend gathering shows love transcends proximity

My wife, Kate, and I became parents in our mid-20s. Our children were the first grandkids on both sides of our family, which also means my son was the first nephew and my daughter the first niece.

Before long, though, my siblings left us in the dust, cranking out three kids apiece, and Kate's sister also had a pair. By the end of 2017, our complement of nieces and nephews will hit double digits.

Recently, Kate and I hosted my parents and both of my siblings' families in Columbus. We had 19 people under the same roof, which probably sounds like the hellish opening scenes of Home Alone, but it was seriously great. I love being an uncle.

One of my dad's brothers used to double as a human jungle gym and funniest man alive when I was a kid, and those memories have inspired me to fully embrace the role of the uncle who tickles and wrestles and makes ridiculous faces and repeats nonsensical jokes ad nauseum. I love that references to Uncle Joel are often preceded by “crazy” or “silly.” I love that one set of nieces refers to me as Muncle Joel, and Kate is Aunt Cake. One nephew also applies the uncle designation to my wife, who he refers to as Uncle Kate; this eventually will become confusing, but for now it's adorable.

We did an extended family photo shoot while everyone was here, and toward the end, my youngest niece seemed inconsolable. When I reached for her and she reached back, it was the best part of the day. We passed some time by examining rocks that I pretended were utterly fascinating. She was hooked. (Some of the rocks may have entered her mouth, but it's OK since I'm an uncle.)

My closest sibling lives eight hours away, so we don't get to see our relatives nearly as often as we'd like. And yet when everyone arrived that weekend, even the smallest kids knew they were with people who love them in a way that transcends proximity. All the cousins seemed to have an innate sense of family, from the trust they extended to their aunts and uncles to the questions they asked (“Can we stay here forever?”).

I realize, though, that for some people a family reunion is more likely to cause hives than fuzzy memories. We live in a broken world full of broken relationships, and families are by no means immune. If the uncle-aunt/nephew-niece/cousin relationships you were hoping for just aren't panning out, maybe inventing a new relationship category will come in handy.

Friends of ours moved away several years ago—so long ago, in fact, that even though my son and their oldest daughter played together as toddlers, neither of them remembers it. But we make it a point to see this family regularly, and recently one of their kids realized that our relationship goes beyond a regular friendship. She now refers to our kids as “friend cousins.”

Joel Oliphint is associate editor of Columbus Alive. He had a semi-crazy uncle who would stick his fingers in his nephews' food.