On Family, Part One

Yes, I realize this is the second post in a row that includes a “part one.” I recognize that at some point, you will need a part two, and I will work on it.

The follow is transcribed from my tattered black spiral notebook, the one I take with me when I travel, in case inspiration strikes. Or, in case it knocks me flat on my ass.

From Friday evening, July 11, 2014:

A few hundred yards away from me, nearly fifty members of my family are gathered in a room to celebrate just that: being members of a family. Or rather, being members of this family.

We are children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Many of us descended from four Norwegian brothers. Only one still walks this earth; the others echo in our steps as we walk the grass and gravel in this beautiful place without them. Oh, but they’re still here. Their faces are reflected in their children’s smiles and their stories are told, over and over again. As long as we’re here, they won’t be far away. Their laughter will ring as loud as it ever did before, as long as we still draw breath and find joy in their memory.

After tonight’s dinner, a predictably wonderful feast prepared by gifted and practiced hands, I wandered to a table holding pictures, family trees, and keepsakes of the ones who came before us. A particular photo of my grandpa took my breath away, just for a moment. He must have been about sixty, smiling as broadly as ever in front of the Mendenhall glacier, with the twinkle in his eye that was so characteristic of my sweet Papa Art.

It struck me that this was the face of his I’ll always remember, the one I still see whenever I think of him. Not the frail body in the hospital bed, but the sturdy and stubborn and smart-as-a-whip Norwegian standing by that icy lake.

That’s how I remember him–so how could it be so long ago? They say life will pass you by in an instant if you’re not paying attention–But really, I think I’m paying awfully close attention, and it’s been wholly ineffective in slowing the passage of time.

For a moment, I turned pages of albums and allowed the grief, the missing  to wash over me. I know, I said they’re still here. But I wanted to hear his voice. I wanted him to tell me how he thought the Seahawks will play this year (though, let’s tell it like it is…they’ll dominate.) I wanted his advice on my career and his thoughts on marriage. I wanted a hug, and to smell the scotch on his breath when he kissed my cheek. I wanted him back.

So I walked from that room, to wrestle alone for a minute with the knowledge that while one life is so small, it is at the same time so mysteriously and wonderfully BIG. I found a blue-painted picnic table and here I sit, wondering.

When I was a kid and grandpa would tell me about his history, my history, it always made me feel like I was a part of something big, something special. And on this picnic table with the golden-hour sun shimmering on Puget Sound in front me and the voices of these people, my people behind me, I get it. I am a part of something big. Something special. I’ve lived enough to know that not everyone counts down the days until their family reunion. Most families don’t count each other as friends, let alone best friends. Most families don’t drunk dial or text each other. But we do, and it’s awesome.

Something big, and something special…indeed.

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I’ll Be Seeing You (Part One)

I’ve been putting off writing this post for a while now. Ok, actually, I’ve been putting off sitting down to type this post for a while. I’ve been writing it for weeks—in the car, in the shower, in the rare moments of quiet I stumble into, when I find myself without a text conversation or social media outlet to distract me. I’ve been dreaming words, sentences, and paragraphs that would capture how I feel (how, in so many ways, I hope I always feel) and many of those words were lovely. They were sweet and eloquent, sharp and powerful. But I couldn’t let them onto the paper, or onto the screen, as the case may be.
Because, I feared, they would just never be enough. Not enough adjectives to describe him, nor verbs to detail his adventures, or the way that he loved. Really, are there ever enough pages to capture a life? I mean really and truly grab hold of the biggest and smallest moments—every kiss on the cheek or squeeze of a hand, or rattle of ice in a glass? Are there volumes great enough to contain it all?

Yeah, I don’t think so either. But here I am, typing away because he deserves my words, however insufficient they may be. Truthfully he deserves so much more than my words, but words are what I have. So I’ll offer them anyway.

When I was very young, I used to wander into my grandpa’s home office. First in my grandparents’ home on Vista Way in Edmonds, WA, where a spiral staircase led to a loft above the kitchen where grandpa did his “work”. And later, at the third-floor condo, overlooking Puget Sound, where he lived while I collected most of my memories of him. The latter office was often the overflow coat stash for our family on holidays and birthday parties if the bed in the master suite was already covered. It was across the hall from the guest bathroom, so when I slipped away from the happy chaos in the living room to pee, I’d inevitably find myself in there, wide-eyed.

The desk, sturdy, solid wood, still sits by the window. His phone, shaped like a powder-blue classic car (the horn honks when a call comes in) is next to a large table lamp. There’s a framed picture of him with his three brothers at his retirement party in 1991, years before each of their bodies would gradually fail them. There’s an alarm clock, digital, with blue numbers, and a souvenir golf ball from a long-ago game. Pinned on the lampshade is his Boeing badge, featuring his smiling face at around age 60 and his name: ARTHUR H LOWELL, in all caps. What the badge doesn’t tell you about his career, the walls of that office do. Plaques and accolades, medals and certificates. A massive portrait of him, painted with airplanes and space shuttles in the foreground, hangs in a frame. The portrait was in commemoration of his retirement after 39 years. Surrounding it inside the frame are hundreds of signatures and well-wishes. On the dresser underneath the picture is a tiny TV, where my cousins and I used to watch Gulliver’s Travels and The Wizard of Oz on VHS. Next to the TV are an antique abacus and an old Christmas card from President George H.W. and Mrs. Bush.
As a child, I never understood what all of it meant, those tokens of an impressive professional journey. But somehow, stepping into that room made me feel PROUD, though I never could have articulated it then.

Every chance he got, my grandpa would teach me and my cousins about our family, about our past. When I was six, he and my grandma flew me, along with my six and seven-year-old cousins to his hometown of Juneau, Alaska. We stayed in his brother’s home, and visited the Alaska Pioneer home, where we met his mother Anna (pronounced Ah-na), age 103 at the time. She was very old and not entirely able to interact with us very well, but even now I wish to God I’d paid more attention. I vaguely remember him speaking to her, and it hurts my heart a little that I can’t remember it better: That powerful man, kneeling next to the woman who’d raised him, speaking into the microphone of her hearing aid so she could hear him better. As children are wont to do, though, I was likely distracted by my toys or my cousins or my shoes. Over the years, my mom and her siblings have joked about how crazy it was for my grandparents to have taken three first-graders North to Alaska for a WEEK. It’s only now that I realize what a precious gift he was giving, and how important it was for him to give it: He wanted us to meet her. He wanted her to see what he had created in his life, and for us to see from where, from WHOM we came. She died two years later. She passed in the dead of winter, so all four brothers and their wives would bury her in the spring, when the ground had thawed and new life would bloom around her grave.

We would visit that grave as a family of twenty-four in 2002. I was sixteen, and my grandparents took the whole crew on a cruise to Alaska to celebrate their 50th Anniversary. Grandpa chartered a tour bus in Juneau, and took us to the hospital where he was born, the church where he was baptized, and the house where he grew up. He showed us his high school and the route to which he delivered the newspaper on December 7, 1941. He showed us his parents’ graves, side by side, and his father’s name on Juneau’s fisherman’s memorial.

On that trip, we ate salmon and Baked Alaska. Our family told stories and laughed, and had squirt gun fights from our staterooms, shooting streams of water across the hallway, more than once hitting innocent passersby. My uncle bought my cousin and I our first Tequila Sunrises, insisting that someday when I was older, I would remember my uncle Mike, and how he bought me my first Tequila Sunrise when I was 16.

Wouldn’t you know? I do. And I always will.