Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Family History

My grandfather is stooped and slow. He spots a stray leaf on the ground and picks it up. He is meticulous about the carpet.

He brings me two pictures, yellowed, the edges scuffed. He remembers one, and in it he is young and dapper, with his brothers and father. The other fails him, he can’t remember. The photo came from the briefcase he brought out last night when I started writing down the names of the great grandparents and where they were born. It is filled with pieces of family history small details of living on a farm in Kansas.
I think it’s beautiful, my own piece of Laura Ingalls Wilder sort of history. I read sections and we all laugh, and I marvel that I have come from these stories. Within hours I will give a presentation on Papua and in ways that exotic culture across the ocean is more familiar to me than this history of my family.

The others leave, busy, and my grandfather and I sit as I read and sort the papers. He is serious, and he pats the briefcase and shows me how to open and close it and tells me he wants me to have it. It’s important, he says, and I am interested and that is good. I won’t keep it, because we are leaving and I don’t think I have the right. But I will take it and scan those papers and pictures and pass them out to the family so that this history isn’t lost, so that especially the namesakes can pass it to their children.

Grandpa leans in, he thanks me for being interested. He cares. So much he covers with humor so that you can’t be sure if he’s joking or if he’s forgotten, but he is serious now. This is important to him.

I remember him 15 years ago, when we’d walk into the country club and he would work the room, walking from table to table, catching up with everyone, making people laugh. He was a big personality, confident, successful.  He's a man I admire. Age has made him sweet and gentle, and that is not all bad. The humor is still there.

I watch him playing peekaboo with my son between the glasses on the table. Judah’s bright blue eyes were passed to him from Grandpa’s now-faded ones. Grandpa, dad, me, Judah. A family line. My throat expands and my heart aches, because I know these moments in the kitchen playing peekaboo are precious, and I don’t know how many years we have, or how many of these last years I will lose as we go overseas.

This has been the hardest thing for me, the thought of leaving family. When I was a child I said that my biggest wish was to have all my friends and family living in one place. Not much has changed. I wonder now if I’m the one preventing the possibility of my family living near each other.  I want to go and I do not feel at home here, but oh, family.  I am heavy with that longing.

We slide into the pew next to grandma and grandpa. I remember sitting here as a child, bored by the hymns and passing time by counting the fish in the beautiful stained glass design. My dad was discipled here, and then as a lonely teenager in a foreign culture, I was as well. This pew is familiar to three generations of my family.

We sing, “Be Still My Soul”, and I smile wryly because God speaks, He is always speaking.
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shall you better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe your sorrow and your fears.
Be still, my soul: your Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Later we talk to a table full of people, they hear our story, and my grandparents join us and listen. Afterwards my grandmother marvels that all those years ago they worried when my parents took me and my brother to a foreign land, filled with imaginary dangers. Now she sits and watches me articulate my passion and our goals in between chasing my son around the room. She needn’t have worried, she says, just look at how it all turned out.

Grandpa adds water to the bird feeder. He’s always cared for the birds around their home. He settles into his arm chair, where he tries to read the paper and falls asleep, as he always does these days. We talk politics with my grandmother and I think she could give the politicians a good lecture or two, though she is so sweet you’d never know it. She’s reading The Hunger Games, and I marvel.

I wish that I could pass these moments to my children and their children, that they would know my grandparents as I do.  Through all time a generation passes and another grows, and I am in the middle of it.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.


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