Each summer, my extended family gets together for a week to eat, laugh, share, bicker, pray, and reconnect. We’ve been doing this for over 30 years now. Our motley crew (my parents, sisters, spouses, and offspring) first started this annual gathering at Oglebay Park outside of Wheeling, West Virginia. One year we all congregated at DisneyWorld. For two years we met in Hawaii (once at the big island, once at Maui). Then we spent roughly a decade at a large beach house on the southern North Carolina shore. As my parents reached their 80’s and the long journey from northern Indiana to the Atlantic Ocean began to exact an excessive physical toll on them, we elected to meet at a state park in southern Indiana. Then we rendezvoused for a few years at a state park that was an hour or two closer still to my parents. This year they finally announced it was time to cast their anchor for good.
Both my parents have had their share of mundane and serious medical issues in the past decade or so, but this year was particularly grueling for my mother. She endured a health scare over the winter and continues to experience some looming after-effects — including (“but not limited to,” as we attorneys are wont to add) the stress of deciding whether to undergo a risky follow-up surgery to reverse the outcome of a procedure performed in February.
“Timothy,” my father told me after mom’s stint in the hospital, “you guys can do what you want about the reunion this year, but your mother and I aren’t leaving the county any more. We’re staying in West Lafayette. Our travelling days are over. We’ve been practically everywhere we’ve ever wanted to go — Europe, Africa, Australia, China, Russia, Hawaii, Alaska. Deserts. Oceans. Mountains. I’ve lost count of how many countries. All 50 states, I think. Great. Wonderful. But we’re tired, we want to sleep in our beds, and we’d like to be close to our doctors. You know. Just in case.”
His sentiment was perfectly understandable and a long time in coming. Dad’s latter point, I suspect, owes something to his experience of watching my paternal grandfather die in a hospital room while visiting us in Indiana. Grandpa profoundly regretted being away from his home as his life ended.
“It will be a long time before I come visit you again,” he archly told my dad.
“It will be a long time before I invite you,” my father replied, trying vainly to inject dry humor into a dark situation.
Back to the semi-present. After some deliberation, my sisters and I decided we’d all meet this summer in West Lafayette, where we grew up and where my parents have lived since 1962. One sister (Susie) already lives there, so my oldest sister Betsy and her husband stayed at Susie’s condominium. My sister Lisa’s daughter (and son-in-law and three granddaughters) lives in West Lafayette also, so Lisa and her husband Todd camped out there. My baby sister Barbie couldn’t join us this year as she was in the final stages of preparing for a move to Okinawa, Japan (she’s now there). Krista, the amigos, and I rented a suite across town for the week.
On one day we visited the Battle of Tippecanoe battlefield (a battle, incidentally, which shares considerable common and overlapping history with the Treaty of Greenville). On another, we went to a local water park. On still another, we went to a fascinating refuge dedicated to the systematic study and care of wolves, coyotes, and foxes. We enjoyed a meal at a local drive-in that was once profiled on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” We spent an hour or two at our favorite bookstore a block from the heart of the Purdue campus, a veritable cornucopia of books, magazines, posters, and earthy clothing and jewelry. Interspersed between these activities were mass family evening meal assemblies, swimming excursions, and tennis outings.
It was fun. It was stimulating. It was illuminating. It was edifying. There was — as always — lots of laughter. There was — as always — some bickering. There was — as always — some miscommunication. There was — as always — some snarkiness.
But it was also a little more complicated and disjointed than in years past. There were more family members missing than is normally the case. One nephew, to cite an example, is in San Diego and couldn’t get away due to a number of obligations, including an acting gig as the lead in a musical based on the life of Buddy Holly. Another nephew was taking the Tennessee bar exam and preparing for a move with his wife and infant daughter to Paducah, Kentucky where he’ll be serving a federal judicial clerkship. And so on and so forth.
Thus, on multiple counts this gathering was different. Very different. More changes await, no doubt. Where will we convene next year? Will we persist in this tradition after my parents pass away? What will the extended family look like in a decade? Who will we add? Who (gulp) will we bid farewell to?
Heraclitus famously observed roughly 2500 years ago that the only constant in life is change. Abby Swensen (2001-?) echoed the Greek philosopher the night we returned from the reunion.
“This year was so, you know, different. With your family, I mean.”
“Different good? Different bad? Different what?”
“I dunno. I’m still thinking about it. Different. And as everybody gets older and people move and have children and … even … you know…die…it’s gonna keep getting differenter and differenter, isn’t it?”
“Yep. Differenter and differenter. That’s life.”