(A gathering in 1964)
Because I am soon off to visit my brother, along with a gaggle of other family members, I thought I’d share a bit before I board the plane. I am more a traveler by car so this trip, non-stop, requires a good reason. Much of my family is converging on the other side of the country to celebrate W.’s seventieth birthday in a few days. It seems preposterous we all could have aged so, but certainly it’s a blessing we’re yet here on earth and engaged in hearty living. To that end, there will even be a nephew arriving from Germany. The party will be a good one.
December is a month full of meaningful dates. It occurs to me my mother’s birthday was this month; I wonder if she will attend in in spirit, which would be like her. And a dear grandson will be turning eight the day I fly back home. But, too, I must say–because he is so much on my mind–that I lost another nephew far too soon one December. I grieve his passing, still. And Christmas is coming up, a time of faith that matters to me spiritually, far less so materially.
Family. We all have complicated families. I read once that those who maintain congenial family relationships tend to fare better as they age–particularly if one feels close to siblings. There is comfort in familiarity (notice the root word there!), the forbearance and forgiving acceptance that being blood-connected offer us, and a love that cannot be shared in quite the same way with any other.
Besides, in my family we share: similar cowlicks, white hair generally arriving quite early (I am the odd one with more auburn brown still), large and mostly blue eyes, mental and physical stamina, musicality, and a tendency to believe all things possible, even good things. We love to hope, learn and create. We also can be fussy and critical, high-handed, overly generous rescuers, perfectionistic, easily moved by suffering and kept awake by troubles here and afar. We pull toward God, those ancient teachings a divine compass, yet we can be too demanding of ourselves and others. Fervency can be a pro or con here but at least we have passion.
I have written of my family before, most recently of the aforementioned brother on Veteran’s Day. What could possibly interest you further? I’ve told a few tales about five children growing up in a two-story bungalow in a small Michigan city. Our father was a music educator and administrator, a conductor and musician. Our mother, an elementary school teacher. For some years she was a stay-at-home mom, which translates into being the CEO of a home-based business: a large family with drive, wide-ranging goals and assorted needs and deeds. We were (and are) a slew of “doers”. That meant keeping track of intricate schedules for each one, not to mention my father, who was so busy his recalled presence is at times like a blur except for dinner and Sunday mornings. Then he slowed down, sat (often with a symphony score at hand), talked with us. Quizzed us on various topics. It was like school at home and we all had something to say.
(Birthday brother and our father and a shared appreciation of cameras)
W. is much like my father, with his passion for history and music and his artistic eye, a genial way with people and generous laugh. Today I got a text message from my sister-in-law: they were on their way to perform with a small choir at a White House holiday reception. It doesn’t surprise me; they remain professional singers (not their actual vocations) though they are retired. W. plays viola well but his voice is lovely. We all used to gather together around the baby grand at my parents’ house, five kids singing and/or playing an instrument, a mini-orchestral experience. Our father accompanied us on piano and directed; my mother watched from the kitchen door.
You can see where this has gone: family reunions unlock the door to memories and it is an experience that recalls sounds and smells, feelings, specific slices of life. The way my father’s eyes warmed (yes, twinkled), his laugh when sharing a new pun. The way my mother touched the side of her nose with an index finger while regaling us with a story. It might have been what happened as she walked to the store yet it was somehow funny and fascinating.
I am the youngest of the bunch. My two brothers and two sisters were off to college when I was barely thirteen. W. is more a known entity today, despite the miles. One of the sweet pleasures of being an adult is getting to know your siblings as co-adults. I feel fortunate; there is not one I am not proud to know, and I look forward to being in their company.
If holidays triggers nostalgia, then family reunions bring reality into sharper focus. No one is without flaws or quirks; we are all creative types and strong-willed, but were taught to be kind and civilized. Laughter will embellish conversations. Debate will be commonplace. I am sure there will be discussion of our diminishing extended family, events we recall from our youth, the passing of pictures to exclaim over. There will be feasting around tables. Music: it goes without saying, whether we sing, attend a concert or listen to the stereo. And since W. is a professional photographer, as well, his cameras will be recording details. The schedule for five days will be orderly with some room for spontaneity. My brother’s house will accommodate us, people wall-to-wall. I look forward to the “side-by-side” composition of our meeting, rubbing shoulders, exchanging hugs.
When all seven of us, our friends and father’s music students were present in the house it was cramped. Often it felt lacking in privacy, was noisy and action-packed. I would climb the backyard maple tree with notebook and pen, breathe and think, plan faraway jaunts and dreams. After my siblings departed for the next stage of life there was such gaping space, a swell of silence that at times unnerved me. Then I’d sit on my bed and marvel at finally having my very own huge (so it seemed) room. I felt suddenly like an only child for the next several years, with the high and low points that came with it.
We can’t go back to the house on Ashman Street–no one wants to return to childhood, really, and my parents are long gone. But this is even better. Each of us grew up, became individuated beyond the group as everyone does with good fortune. Our lives have at times been challenged, even fragmented, then stitched together and made whole again. We have many interesting years between us, voluminous talk to share. We will develop new snapshots while tending and savoring each moment. Age has sculpted our faces and no one knows just what lies ahead. So now we make space and time enough to celebrate my brother and, too, these enduring and deepened family ties.
(My brother and me)