I got the invitation for my family reunion in the mail the other day. This is my grandfather's family, the Danish/German side. A vast empire of stoic Germanic Lutheran midwestern farmers who make Garrison Keillor characters seem like dope-smoking hippies. They are hardworking people who have very little time or even ability for fun.
I love them all, each and every one of them, and I truly enjoy that we all get together once a year and visit, but sweet jumpin' Mary, it is quite a reserved bunch. There is no drinking, no music, no dancing, no swearing and not a lot of joking.
I was thinking of this as I went for an evening run the other night, trying to decide if I would attend this year or not. I last went two years ago with my favorite aunt, who had recently been widowed and even with that hanging over her, she was the jolliest person there.
My running route took me past my uncle Jim's house, so I stopped in for a quick visit. Jim is my grandma's brother and one of my favorite people. Actually, I liked all of my grandma's siblings except her oldest brother, Johnny. He was a right mean bastard. My grandma came from a big, messy Irish family. She was the oldest girl and the second oldest of eight. Like my grandpa's family, Grandma's family also farmed, but it was complicated significantly by the fact that my grandma's parents were separated for most of their marriage.
When the Great Depression hit, my great-grandparents, already poor farmers, fell even further into poverty. Fortunately, my great-grandpa's sister was able to find him a job in a machine shop. In Milwaukee. Half a state away from his farm.
He took the job and my great-grandma was all set to follow him to the big city with their children in tow until she found out that they wouldn't have their own house but would live with the sister, universally considered to be a horrible bitch (She was still living when I was younger and I can assure you, the rumors were true). My great-grandma dug in her heels and said not just no, but hell no, and stayed put on the farm. My great-grandpa came home occasionally and knocked her up, but it was my great-grandma that did the heavy lifting.
So my grandma and her siblings grew up in this environment - an absent father, an overworked mother and lots of children. They worked hard, but they also played hard. These people know how to have fun. There was always laughter and jokes, even when things were really horrible, like having to hide my uncle Art under the bed when company came because he had a severe cleft palate or the abuse or the abject poverty or when my grandma had to walk 10 miles one way to school because she wanted an education and her father and her oldest brother didn't believe she needed a high school diploma so neither was going to drive her or even let her use a car. She did it, though. She was the first one in our family to graduate high school and then went on to graduate from beauty school.
Even Jim, who served in Germany in World War II and is the last remaining sibling, still laughs about everything and tells stories of racing cars with his brothers and farming and his courtship with his wife, Jim-Sandy. See, Jim and his brother Buzzy both married women named Sandy and so we'd always know which Sandy we meant, we'd run the brother's name together with the wife's name and they became Jim-Sandy and Buzzy-Sandy. When I was younger, I honestly thought that's what their names were because I never heard them referred to any differently.
Anyway, I was talking to Jim about our farming efforts and his eyes lit up. With every mention of corn and raspberries and tomatoes and blueberries and pumpkins, he would jump in with a hilarious story of growing up on a Wisconsin farm and his smile got a little wider.
"I'd really like to see that," he said. "I remember when your ma and dad bought that place. It would be good to see what you kids have done."
I assured him he could come any time.
On my way home, I pondered the difference in the two families and I wondered what would have happened if my grandpa had never married my grandma. He always said she brought light to his life and I believe it. Still, I can count the number of times I saw him laugh on one hand. He just wasn't a jolly person. Dour is a word that comes to mind.
My grandma, though, that woman knew how to party. She's the one who slipped me my first drink when I was 12. A grasshopper, our traditional Christmas drink. When my grandpa would get too grumpy for her taste, she would razz him until he loosened up enough to suit her. He would grouse about it, but there was always a smile on his face as he did whatever it was his wife asked him to.
She was the yin to my grandfather's yang and I'm glad I knew them both. I'm glad I could see how the two pieces fit together. It's something I always keep in mind with Nature Boy - no matter how different we seem, we still fit together.
I think I will go to the reunion. It may not be the rollicking fun we have with the other side, but it's good to remember where we came from.