I am just home from a whirlwind 48-hour trip to San Jose, CA to be with much of my extended family to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of my dear sweet Aunt Corinne.
I’m exhausted like you are after you cram years of catching up with a group of people who, on the one hand, you hardly know, and on the other, recognize in profoundly resonate ways, into a very few hours.
But I’m also deeply moved to have been with them because in an impossible-to-be-articulate way, I am intangibly connected to these people. We are, each of us, from a shared family tree so deeply rooted in our souls and in our identities that it’s as if we have some kind of markings decipherable only to us.
We all know the stories of the founding couple, John and Alfreda, my grandad’s parents. Regardless of where we grew up, we understand that we are the products of pioneers who struggled, lived, succeeded and failed on the harsh prairie land of Western North Dakota before many of that original family of 15 headed further west to join the great migration of people hoping to make a better life for themselves.
My grandad Lawrence was one of the four sons of John and Alfreda who stayed in North Dakota their entire lives. And of Lawrence’s five children, 13 grandchildren and 24 great grandchildren, I am the sole resident of the state. I am the final holdout in this harsh environment, but I am not the only product of it. My cousins and aunts and uncles and other extended family all bear traces of the lessons learned and passed on from those who came before us, from those who worked this land, lived on it, left it and cast off into the great big world.
I’ve often envied friends who talk about growing up, regularly seeing their cousins for Sunday dinners, spending raucous Christmases together all piled into one house or the other, sharing birthday cake with aunties and uncles and packs of cousins. That has just never been my experience. We are scattered across this immense country and actually across the globe.
So what I have are brilliantly preserved snapshot memories of these family members of mine: spending the occasional holiday together, desperately wishing we were closer in age during that period of growing up where a six or seven year age difference mattered so much that I could only look at those cousins I barely knew and wish we could play together. Gradually, over the course of a long weekend forgetting that we were spread far apart in years and geography and finding connections because of proximity at Grandma and Grandad’s house.
But now I have the joy of knowing these people as peers and friends as well as cousins and family; our ages irrelevant for the most part. Now we try to gather for milestone birthdays and, sadly, funerals, of the elder generation, our parents.
Part of me finds that immensely sad: these are my people, my extended safety net and biggest champions. But part of me also understands that we are tethered together by our shared history and DNA, and time and distance can not erase that.
Mostly I am left with an abiding sense of gratitude that in the cosmic lottery of family, I picked an enormously winning number.