My mother had seven brothers. She was the only girl. They all grew up in a small Minnesota farm town in the twenties and thirties of the last century, where Grandpa was one of the big cheeses in town. I grew up hearing about their antics as well as my Grandfather’s powerful presence at home, where he ruled with an iron hand. That was as well as in the community that kept his ego fed. I was lucky enough and tenacious enough (an inherited trait) to nag, cajole and wheedle my uncles and my mom into writing down their memories of growing up in the depression before they started to leave us.
These eight kids grew up as expected. They put their pennies in the church offering, passed “”whistle pants” down the line and passed the paper route from one to the next. They had some legendary antics such as stealing the undertaker’s hearse for a joy ride. Five brothers and one sister fought in World War II. My grandfather was proud to have five stars in his window and even tried to enlist himself; obligations be damned. Two more fought in Korea and the youngest went into the Navy during peacetime. As with millions of others from that era, when they came home, they put their official fighting experience behind them. Some fared better than others. Several dealt better with the memories than others. Three of the brothers married hometown honeys. All started having kids. My mom married a lawyer from Chicago, supposedly ringing the status bell of the time.
I am blessed with 29 first cousins; all maternal. My father had the good taste to be an only child.
Every few years, Gramps would convene a family reunion. I think it was every five years or so. The entire gang would of ever increasing cousins would reunite in Fairmont. There were picnics, sailing, canoeing. Many of us learned to swim in the lake where my uncle had built his home with his dad and his grandfather. I learned not to fish, thanks to one lone Bullhead. Uncle Pat always treated all of us to Dairy Queen at least once each visit.
I loved every minute of it.
Dad? He would brace himself by purchasing a case of Scotch. When my congregational relations declined to partake, he proceeded to kill it himself during the duration. There were enough cousins my age that I wasn’t faced with the usual evening routine involving Dad’s slurring and sarcasm. But, boy was my aunt pissed when there was an empty whiskey bottle outside the bedroom door every morning.
As with everything, time passed. Cousins got married. Cousins went off to war. Cousins went off to work. Grandpa died at the ripe old age of 90, the last major reunion having taken place in 1970.
From time to time, the family pipeline would yield news. There were the births of the children of the Uncles who had moved way out west to raise their kids. Our connection grew frail as we saw less and less of each other.
Two of my uncles and my mom died in the 1990s. I began to cherish the memoirs they had given me more and more. I also shook the family tree for interesting ancestors and discovered quite the cast of characters. Grandpa had also done this same thing in the fifties. He linked us to the Mayflower long before the World Wide Web existed.
Families weave their own webs, whether we know it or not. Through my research, I discovered the immigrants, the veterans of wars including the Revolutionary War, and the felons. Fortunately Mom left me a box of photos from the childhood of she and her brothers. I was able to identify and correlate them into their memoirs.
It was my version of fun. This may sound weird, but it was my joy. It was the jigsaw puzzle of my connection.
Then, through a series of life changes, my husband and I packed up the Conestoga wagon in the form of a Lincoln Navigator and headed to the Wild West ourselves. We began to have relatives who were passing through take the time to stop by.
With the advent of the Internet and social media, we cousins began to reconnect and catch up on our lives and adventures. There began to be rumblings of “wouldn’t it be nice to have a reunion”. No one had the time to take on the organization of a reunion single-handedly. The idea lay on the virtual table.
Enter spontaneous combustion.
The spark that started it happened in Idaho.
One cousin was loading up the RV and heading west to visit his mother, my aunt. All his sisters began talking about local cousins coming for lunch. Everyone signed on for that, which grew into, “hey the Uncle down the road is 91 and his wife is having her 90th birthday during this time”.
More cousins signed on. Enthusiasm fanned the flames.
It was a source of great indecision and even anxiety for me.
The past couple of years have been fraught with uncertainty, injustice and stress. When you are punch drunk and think you are coping, you are still punch drunk.
We had just returned from driving our twin sons to their respective colleges. My husband took a position and the necessary apartment in another state. I was exhausted and very hesitant to drive to Idaho.
This is not my usual character. Even as I age, I like to think that I am up for anything, especially if travel is involved. I used to think nothing of throwing a bag in the car and taking off for points known and unknown.
But that was then. Now I’m a woman travelling alone across the mountains in one long jaunt for lunch one day with relatives I hadn’t seen in years. There would be an overnight and dinner two hours away and then the trek would begin in reverse.
Two days of travel for two days of visiting Aunts, Uncles and cousins, a stop to visit my husband and finally home. A lot of mileage for what seemed a low return. That seemed to be a “no” in my book.
My intuition grabbed me by the throat. “DO IT”, it said.
My Uncle Bill is my favorite uncle. He is patient, kind, and was more of a father to me than my own was ever capable of. He helped me grow up and get a grip on what is real as opposed to the continuous chaos and adult drama I called family. If I missed this opportunity to see him, I might not have another. The sands of time in the hourglass of life do not flow upward.
I had to do it. A willing and eager dog sitter magically appeared to seal the decision.
I resurrected the girl that used to do this without blinking. But the experienced woman made sure the AAA® card was current. Off I went.
When I am driving for any extended period of time, I prefer to plug in my IPod.
I love my IPod. It is a classic and contains 13000 of the widest range of songs that anyone could conceive. I dare you. I’m proud of the eclectic diversity. There are show tunes, folk tunes from Chicago and beyond, roaring 20s, classical, rock, punk, comedy, and talking lectures I have attended, Broadway show tunes from four decades, as well as a helluva lot of Celtic music. There were the very obscure as well as the very, very obscure. I always hit random and take delight in whatever comes next. When I started my sojourn, I hit shuffle and started at number one.
As I headed west, and listened and smiled; and relived a route I hadn’t done in fifteen years, I relaxed. What is more, I began to understand that I had surrendered my personal power. Faced with being alone for longer times than I had experienced in years, I had become timid. This realization surprised me.
I am not a wimp; but I had become one. With each passing mile, a little bit of me came home to myself. I realized this was as much for me as reuniting with the people who knew my roots.
And then I arrived at my cousins’ territory…..
In the next three days, there was nothing but laughter, memories, both joyous and not, and teasing and camaraderie that I didn’t even know I had missed until I found it again. The teasing required the hide of a rhino. Tease hard, sack up, laugh or go home. I laughed a lot.
All of this brought out memories from fifteen different perspectives. My collective memory tome added fuel to the merriment. That was a huge honor for me. I had contributed. The different viewpoints and memories filled in the cracks.
It ended all too soon, as these things do. But we will all dine on it for months. There are new memories to add to the old.
The journey home was easy. It wasoyous, even. I sang along as the miles eastward flew by. Thank God there was no one else in the car.
When I pulled into my husband’s apartment, I had recaptured a part of myself I didn’t even know was missing. 1848 miles and 584 songs later, I had reclaimed my wholeness. Thanks, in no small part, to my clan.
But, Idaho drivers remain the worst in the nation. They are rated that way by national survey. It helped me realize I can still get my mojo back when needed. It was further empowerment to negotiate ex-patriot Californians crawling up my car’s rear end and not my own.
Thank you, dear cousins, one and all.
The connection continues and it is true magic. I cherish it.
Thank ye, me blood.