I came from a tiny family – three of us kids. But my parents came from tinier ones: two kids in each family. I had one uncle (and his wife) and one aunt (and her husband). Four cousins in one family—two of them way older than I was and one way younger, and I think four in the other (I was older than all of them). My dad, who didn’t like being in groups of people, liked it that way. So I grew up on both coasts, in city and country, finally landing (as a child in my parents’ house) in Texas, which is on another planet altogether. And in each place, I had to start from scratch as far as having friends was concerned.
When I came up here for school, I didn’t know a living soul. Not in this state. Not in any contiguous state. Not within an area defined by major rivers, oceans of plains and ranges of mountains. Over the six years of my undergrad and aborted Master’s degree I made a lot of new friends, mostly the college kind – who eventually get married or go home – whose lives don’t interface in adult life the way they did when we were all running wild on campus. I bought a house for myself. A wee one. I was a dental assistant for a year, then taught high school English in two cities, working with mostly married grownups. G and I met and then I spent two years wondering what, exactly, must be wrong with me, since he couldn’t seem to figure out the him of us. Then one day we got married.
By that time we had a grand total of about two friends. My sister lived up here for a little while. And my brother for a moment. They didn’t stay long.
So here we were—in the land of huge, sprawling families, two people in a raw, new house (we built it—with a contractor, mostly) in a new neighborhood, far away from family.
(I always write too much, trying to get to a place where, once I explain why I’m writing, it will mean something.)
Being LDS, we went to church. For an LDS person that means we were part of a ward (a congregation – which, up here, pretty much means a neighborhood), which means that we taught Sunday School and led music, and visited neighbors and made food for people who were sick, and helped people fix their roofs and stuff. And in the course of doing all that, we built friendships. Most of our friends were people who came from those huge, sprawling families I just mentioned, but we still had a good mess of folks over for our 4th of July extravaganzas, and though we did not get along with everybody we met, we were no longer alone.
Over the years, some friends have become family. And family – my brother, G’s brother and sister – moved up here. And our children got married. And we liked our inlaws.
Last Sunday, Cam and Lorri’s brand new Gigi (named after her aunt Ginna and her great aunt Gigi – for whom Ginna was named) went to church for the first time. It is the LDS custom to make a solemn occasion of the naming of the baby. A circle of love and priesthood surrounds that baby, holding it gently, each man with one hand under the baby and the other on the shoulder of the man ahead of him in the circle, as the father – or grandfather – or whatever priesthood holder is first in love to the baby, gives the baby a blessing to last a lifetime, and establishes the baby’s name before God.
I was sitting up on the stand behind the lectern. Because I lead the music. Up there, I’m kind of not part of the congregation, facing them instead of sitting with them. Still part of them—but a watcher, too.
So often, families come in from all over to be part of this ordinance, uncles, grandparents, friends coming for the blessing. Our congregation – usually about two hundred to three hundred people – often good naturedly finds itself bumped out of pews by the influx of people getting their early for the blessing.
It wasn’t that way for us when we blessed our babies. Often, we got permission to do it at home, so it could be done when my parents and/or G’s could get away to come all the way up here. When we did it in church, we’d ask our dear friends to stand with us, and our little circle was dear and wonderful and fine but always very small.
But last week, when the Bishop invited the family up for the blessing, it seemed like the entire male population rose in the chapel and came forward. I hadn’t forgotten that our baby was going to be blessed that day; we’d all planned it together. But I kept being surprised anew every time a familiar but not usual-in-the-ward person came through the doors.
When I realized how many of them there were, when I saw them all rise up and come forward—and knowing how many other men there were in that room who could have added themselves, having had a hand in Cam and Murphy’s upbringing, who love us—I was utterly overwhelmed.
G and his brother Quint, who had come with his family, came up—and Gigi’s brother-in-law Danny, who might as well be an uncle to our kids, and who had come with his family, my own brother, Murphy, Lorri’s brother (who we love dearly) and her father, and her sister’s husband (who had come with his family), dear friends of the kids’ (and us) who had come with their families and now stood with the rest of the wonderful men, and Rachel’s Brian, who was already there with his family –
When I realized how many of them there were, when I saw them all come up, knowing how many other men there were in that room who could have added themselves, having had a hand in Cam and Murphy’s upbringing, who love us, I was utterly overwhelmed.
I always think of myself of the new kid who doesn’t really belong anywhere yet.
But suddenly, I realized that I was part of a huge, sprawling family.
And I was amazed.
I suppose one of the reasons why I haven’t been writing much for the last year is that things have been flashing by so quickly – things for which there should be a thousand words written, but which also are so emotionally big, I’m not ready to try to frame them. And then they are gone and the next thing is here. Like trying to pick out which wave to ride on a good day at the beach – and getting knocked over often enough, you miss the ones that could have counted.
This morning, I drove down to the horses. I drive a long, straight stretch of road lined with houses on one side and farms on the other. The farms hold on bravely, and I love them far more than I do the houses.
Every Memorial day, the scout troup down that way plants a huge flag in each yard that lines the street, all the way down to the little airport road. I’ve posted pictures of the flags before. That morning, still in the flush of amazement from Sunday’s blessing, I was moved by the line of snapping stars and stripes. Thinking about my father who was in the Navy during WWII. On the radio they were interviewing the Marines who have to tell the families when a Marine is killed in service. A man said, “The Marine who came to our door had been crying before we had the door open. He stood there, a big black man in formal uniform, with tears running down his cheeks.” It was hard and dear to hear them say what they said, a three minute Tour de Force.
This morning as I drove down to the horses, I was surprised to see the flags still up. Not only still up, but multiplied – both sides of the street lined with this big flags, flapping in a wind that had just brought us blessed rain. And there were people standing on both sides of the road, clumps of folks at corners, all looking down the street towards the airport road.
One of the people jumped up and waved at me at I drove past—Rachel, in a baseball cap, camera in her hand. I pulled over and rolled down the window.
Then she told me—they were bringing a fallen soldier home from the Middle East, a boy from down-valley who was being flown into our little airport. A scouting family had gotten up at dawn to line the streets with the red white and blue – hundreds of flags along the mile and a half to airport road. People had come from all over to park along that street and wait, some sitting in lawn chairs, for the procession to come up from the airport, heading for the highway that would take him home.
The mom of the scouting family that did all the flags.
I went down to let the horses out, having to oouuch by a big truck that had settled in my pasture drive, waiting for the procession. Then I went home for my camera so I could stand with my friends/family, to wait. Which we did for some little time.
And then it came.
Moving ponderously, using both lanes, headlights on, first the big emergency vehicles that would make sure the way was clear, then a phalanx of police on motorcycles rolled solemnly by. Some military vehicles followed them. Then came the white hearse. Then more military vehicles.
Then an SUV; the dark window had been rolled down, and a sweet faced woman was looking out – she’d passed a mess of people on the way before us, people waving flags, standing silently with their hands over their hearts. As she passed, she looked at us and she said, “Thank you,” with a tone of quiet amazement.
Then hundreds of bikers, moustached and bandana-ed, with their leather vests and their flags.
Then came lines and lines of fire trucks and police cars and Sheriffs’ vehicles, all with their lights flashing, and I realized – I am looking at a parade that is all about the people whose lives stand daily between us and what life might otherwise be. These are the people who put themselves between us and tragedy, between us and evil, between us and the thing that hungers after the lives we so easily think of as “free.”
I am shooting Rachel and Kathy’s sons because mine were not there. And this was a parade for a son, just as beloved.
We stood with our covered hearts, tears running down our faces, surrounded by the children who will be the Watchers in another decade, feeling part of something very great. Something very good and dear.
May I add here that I believe we live forever. And that the “heaven” our Father promises us will actually be built out of “human” connection, the loves we forge in our time on earth, the service and exchange that creates bonds stronger than anything on a quantum level. Our connectedness is the fabric of the Kingdom of God, and the gift we lay on the alter—in return for our privilege to live, to love, to give.
And that’s fine with me. Because that’s really all I want.
So thank you, dear ones. For sharing your lives with me. For allowing me to be part of yours. And for decorating my little life with your beauty.