New Year's Day, I sat in the home of my Aunt's mother, a woman affectionately called "Lolo", someone who I hadn't seen since I was 6 years old but who welcomed me with a wide smile, open laugh and big heart as if no time had passed. Had it really been 25 years? Lolo definitely didn't act like it. She introduced us to all of her children, grand-children and great-grands present as "family from the States," and I was so overwhelmed that I felt like I would burst into tears at any moment.
So to process my emotions, I turned inward to imagine myself as I was a few months earlier. There I was hiking with my father and a guide as we absorbed the elements in the breathtaking vastness of the Ecuadorian Oriente, globally known as the Amazon Rainforest. After two hours of our journey along a rocky and muddy decline, we arrived in a beautiful oasis -- a natural pool carved into the side of the rock, which Dad climbed and jumped off into with 80% adrenaline and 20% glee (I, however was 100% nervous, lol).
He emerged from the depths of the lagoon with a smile on his face so bright that it could have eclipsed the sun -- a smile not unlike Lolo's when we pulled into the parking lot of her apartment complex and walked back into her home and her life like long-lost friends. Except because of the complexities of life and the stories that it brings, we were more than friends. We were family: no questions asked.
And the thought came to me like a whisper in the night: my family tree is more like a rainforest.
All I'd understood about my paternal lineage was that we'd come from enslaved Africans who made their way towards freedom and survival in St. Thomas, St. Croix and most recently, the United States. It never fully occurred to me that pieces of my family were seeds of their own, scattered amongst the lands my ancestors had traversed, and had, in the same timeframe, developed lush gardens of their own.
In a rainforest, there is an entire ecosystem that operates with or without the influence of human life. In the Oriente, there was a butterfly with wings that were completely transparent except for a red stripe on its tips. There were plants that were in various stages of their lifecycles, each contributing to the continuity of their environment and our world as "Earth's lungs", cleansing the air we breathe even thousands of miles away.
These plants, like my family, have roots that run long and deep. It is not a clean flowchart of nuclear families; some would call us dysfunctional and broken. But what others would see as messy is a real-life Monet filled with the complexities of lives fully experienced with wide smiles, open laughter, and big hearts -- big enough to open the door with outstretched hands and begin the process of welcoming us to a piece of our home again.
Before leaving, a group of the youngest kids spilled out onto the lawn in front of the complex, and asked me to facilitate a race. Standing like a tree at our determined finished line, I extended my hands as 15+ children ran towards me as fast as they could, like I was offering prizes. "Again! Again!" they shouted as my younger brother joined to help me run the impromptu competition for a few more rounds. A day earlier, I would have been a stranger to these screaming kids turning the grass into a football field. But Lolo chose to take the stories that were meant to separate us and created a path toward the oasis of connection.
This time, I decided to jump in. And my smile indeed eclipsed the sun.