It’s A Family Affair
By Ken DeLaat
We were sitting around at the cottage owned by my fairly older sister Sue and her husband enjoying our annual reunion. Well, more like a sometimes annual if we all can make it happen and be in the same state at the same time and someone makes the effort to organize stuff and all and I don’t know, you just have to know my family.
The practice started but four years ago although...
...such gatherings were not only pretty regular when we were all wearing younger person’s clothes but almost legendary in retrospect,. There are vivid memories of extended family gathering adventures and the excitement they often brought but these dwindled as each family became larger and more distant. My group became more geographically diverse and busy enough with our own broods to make much of any contact rare except for an attempt to gather near the holidays. Even those diminished over time and finally departed along with my parents.
Sue got things rolling again after reminding us when the last of our aunts had passed that the four of us were the senior members of Dad’s family and had taken up the torch laid down by the previous generation from this branch.
The year it began a large cluster of cousins, the children of our children connected for the first time and interacted as if they had always been part of each other’s lives. There were lots of little ones and it was reminiscent of our much younger days when we would be transported to someone’s house or a park and play with all the cousins or the years our kids were those little ones.
My brothers and sister and I generally sit in the shade of the deck and watch the goings on, occasionally sharing a story or relating a recent event since this is the lone time each year we get together.
My brother had a packet of photos and articles that he was sharing and one item was a letter from our Dad to our Mom written while he was away fighting the good fight during WWII. I had never seen it and when I read it what took me by surprise was the flood of emotion that poured forth as I read his typewritten four pager describing his visit from the base he was at in Germany to the Netherlands to visit his never before seen relatives. The family members who stayed in Holland when my Grandfather and Grandmother took their two small children, who were to be the first of 9, to America.
The letter described in minute detail every moment from the time his furlough began until his typing of the letter late at night some two days later back at the base. It was poignant and captivating and my Dad poured off those pages with every word I read. Not the Dad I knew but a much younger man who had just literally been through a war and was writing home. Writing to the woman he had created his own family with. A family she was caring for while he was away from home. Not away on business or traveling about willfully but away and fighting a war.
After the war he and the others had to remain as they waited for the chaos to subside enough to allow all these brave men to return home. It was during that time he managed to gain a furlough and found his way to the home town of his father in the Netherlands, a country that had been decimated by the conflict.
His letter spoke of the excitement his relatives felt when he visited. How they stopped their lives to spend every minute with him, took him to see every relative he had in the area and introduced him with excitement to everyone they knew, He described how they shared the scant food they had on hand during that time, showed him every picture and shared every memory they could of his Dad, his Mother (who passed away when Dad was just 15), and his older sibs. They treated him like as they might treat royalty. He was a man they had never met but one who was immediately taken in and embraced.
Because he was family.
There was a connection that the ocean of distance that had always existed between them could not break. He was a stranger to them but he was no stranger. He was family.
As I have written before, my Dad never spoke of his time in the army. I knew he hated it. I knew not to ask him about it and I knew that what tortured him the most about being there was that he wasn’t here. He wasn’t at home with his family. His wife, his two kids, one of whom was born soon after he departed for Europe, his Dad, his sisters and brothers and their spouses, and the various nieces and nephews that were always about.
When I read of how the man I only knew when he was years away from the war slept on real sheets during that furlough for the first time since being drafted it tugged at my heart and how he had brought the family food, cigarettes, coffee and other items of scarcity in those post war days. He even told of giving them a photo he treasured and had long carried but knew they would adore. I saw the younger version of the man I always knew to be generous to a fault particularly when it came to family.
But it was his attention to detail that grabbed me. As he vividly and artfully described to my Mom every aspect of his trip it struck me that it was the same detail he’d employ when he wrote me during my exchange student days in Finland. He could write in a way that made it seem like he was talking to you, like he was in the same room with you.
And it was about the simple everyday stuff going on.
It struck me how that was what it was all about. My connectedness to my sibs as we sat and watched our children and our children’s children and their even some of their children’s children interact.
Oh, we tell the stories that are part of family lore, sift through ancient history and family legends that are expanded upon and polished considerably with each telling.
But our true connection comes from the small things we experienced together. The thousand of meals we shared the trips we took riding in the same car, the small adventures, comedies and drama families go through.
We see photos of weddings and celebratory times but the pictures that stand out are the ones where we’re just doing what we always did, being around each other and being a family.
In ‘Our Town’ Thornton Wilder’s character Emily goes back after she’s passed away to a day in her childhood when it was just a normal day and finds herself frustrated by how no one connects or looks at each other or seems to express anything because they’re busy just living everyday life.
To me those trivial moments when it might seem we’re on automatic pilot are what link us together somehow. We seldom see each other but when I’m around my sibs there is a degree of comfort and awareness and of knowing each other in a way that no one else does because those many years ago we lived with each other during our formative years. Even though we perhaps just passed each other by most times, we always knew we were there.
My brothers both married and moved out years before my sister and I did the same but in a way they seemed to remain long after their departure and when we gathered together at my parent’s home in some ways it felt the same as it did when we all were together.
And nowadays, 20 some years since my parents passing?
Like I said we don’t see much of each other. Heck we don’t see each other individually much less as a group and yet….
I always know they’re there.
Just like they’ve always been.
“The family is one of nature’s masterpieces”- George Santayana
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