July 27, 2011

Relative Strangers

What is stranger than a family reunion with family you don’t know?  My father moved away from his family of origin in 1949.  I wasn’t even a gleam in his eye, nor had he met my mother.

For most of my childhood, we drove the two hours to visit with members of his family on their turf.  I have photographic evidence that his family visited us, but I just don’t remember it.  My dad is the youngest child in a large family and each of his siblings’ begat children early.  Add a few more begats and another generation of begats and you have my father’s family now.

Over the years, I’ve tried to stay in touch with aunts and uncles.  Now they are all gone, except for one aunt.

Last year I helped my Dad plan a family reunion for his family to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his parent’s wedding.  He hosted a dinner at the retirement home where he lives with my mom, who has late-stage dementia.  The cousins asked to meet again this summer.  I was against doing it again, because sometimes once is enough.  We all left the reunion last summer wanting more.  I think there is something in savoring and not pushing the envelope, but that’s just me.

My father scheduled this reunion on my birthday, but I felt uncomfortable celebrating with relatives who couldn’t pick me out of a police line-up.  I asked my own family to refrain from mentioning it.  My mom always took care of family birthdays, and she would have been the person to know details about each person’s life.  It was the right thing to do.  I would have felt awful if we celebrated my day, and Cousin David’s oldest turned nine that day.

My dad’s first cousin Arthur was the life of the party.  At eighty-four, he is still a ladies’ man, and wears a jaunty white driver’s cap.  He owns a limousine service, though rarely takes calls anymore.  Arthur came late to the party after the group had moved from the central dining room to a private lobby to talk.  My brother found him in the central dining room with four elderly women, all engaged in Arthur’s flirtatious rhetoric.  One of the women was one of Arthur’s numerous ex-wives, still friendly with him.

Except for my father’s family, the others all live within a 30-mile radius of each other.  I have no idea about their inter-relationships, though the wife of Dad’s nephew told me twice how close her husband is with his two brothers. 

This woman and her husband, who is my first cousin, were supposed to take a tour out west a couple of weeks ago.  My cousin had to have a heart catheterization, and could not go.  He farms with his brother and last week they were combining oats when my cousin saw his brother slumped over the tractor off in the distance.  My cousin ran to his brother and pulled him off the tractor, where he was suffering from the heat.  My cousin, who was supposed to be out west, probably saved his brother’s life. Had my cousin not had his heart cath, his brother might be dead. His wife told me that for weeks she had a bad feeling about the trip. How lucky they were to have one cousin’s heart fixed, and his brother’s life probably saved.

My cousins still enjoy farming the old-fashioned way, and will probably tackle the heat again.  At 72 and 73, they should stay out of the fields on a hot day.  But I suspect they won’t. Their mother was my dad’s oldest sister.  Ruth was under five feet tall, but tough as nails like her own mother. She did three weeks before my wedding day.  After suffering some abdominal pain, surgeons opened her up only to find cancer was everywhere.  They closed her back up, and she died a few days later.

It is a strange feeling to see all these first cousins and wonder, what, if anything, I have in common with them.  I know nothing about their lives, except the basics.  And we share a history, of our grandparents from long ago, a history only in pictures that are faded and crumbling.

One thing we share is the loss of a grandfather in 1935, who died of a heart ailment the year before his first grandchild was born.  Our grandfather was 53, an age I just surpassed.  I was happy last week to cross the “bewitching hour,” now having outlived that grandfather who only lives in the distant memory of my father who was five when his father died.

About twenty years ago we were at this same reunion, and I asked my cousin if it had been a while since the group had been together.  She said, “Well, it’s been a long time, almost three months.”  Two of her three adult children live footsteps away.  I’m sure she could not imagine that my child lives 1,100 miles away, and I don’t expect that he will ever move back here.

Families are all different – I tell that anecdote with no opinion or judgment one way or another as to whether that is a good or bad thing.  My father moved away from his family of origin; my husband moved away from his family of origin.  I moved away from my family of origin and haven’t lived close to them since 1980.

Would life be different if I lived in one of the little Indiana communities where my cousins live? Six years ago, my parents moved near where my father grew up. It was because my brother and his family lived there.  My father – knowing he would be caring for mom as she worsened with dementia – needed help. They had lived for fifty years where my mother’s family had roots, but now her family was all gone from that place, also.

The move has worked well for my parents, and for my dad a happy consequence has been getting to know again his ornery cousin Arthur (infamous for impregnating his high school English teacher when he was sixteen.  That was his first wife.)

Arthur did share a serious story. His brother served on the USS Indianapolis in WWII and was one of the lucky who survived.  Arthur did not tell much about what his now-deceased brother said of the day the ship was torpedoed after its 1946 run to the South Pacific with components for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.  He mentioned that his brother told him that there was little time to get military direction.  His brother, also my dad’s first cousin, said the boat was listing so badly that he could literally stick his foot into the Pacific and walk right into the water.  Shortly after that – within twelve minutes – the USS Indianapolis was gone.

The captain of the Indianapolis -- who was criticized for years for not zigzagging to avoid Japanese fire – shared the same surname as my father and his cousins.  That Navy captain was ultimately vindicated of his choice of route on that day, but did not live to see it.  We are not related to him.

After Arthur told his story, things began to wind down.  Cousin Janet needed to go home and let her dogs out.  The children of my second cousins were clearly getting restless, and my mother was asleep.  One cousin looked at my husband and said, “Nice you could be here again this year.”  (My husband didn’t go last year, and kept asking me, “Who did you bring with you?” 

“No one, you had to work. You just don’t remember.  If I’m going to have a torrid affair, would I bring my secret lover to a family reunion?)

 All the cousins left at the same time.  My father was happy as we watched this group head toward their separate cars on this hot July night.