It was not only a trip back to the reality of dressing in layers daily and taking that five minutes to peel all one's outerwear off when sitting down in a restaurant for lunch. It was also getting to see my dad and all his siblings under the same roof with their father for the first time in a while. We're a bit spread out: Texas, Oregon, California, Minnesota, and sometimes Florida. (Much like my mother's side, which ranges through Michigan, Ohio, California, and the south.) It's a ways to travel and though we do see each other, it isn't terribly often.
It's the reality I grew up with. I have friends with extended family a block away from their childhood homes, and it's always been a blink-worthy moment for me, imagining being able to ride my bike around the corner or over to the next neighborhood to see my cousins. And while this particular meeting was for a sad reason, it was very good to see my uncles and aunts, my step-uncles and step-aunts, great uncle and aunt, cousin and step-cousins, and a whole side of my grandmother's extended family that I'd never met before. (My grandmother is technically my step-grandmother, but as a child, there was no distinction for me.) It was especially good to see my grandfather, who is spry and anxious to get back to tennis again after a car accident a little while back.
One night, we sat in my aunt and uncle's kitchen and were regaled for over an hour by the story of how they got together, a story I'd never heard. My cousin was clearly a veteran of this story, but save for my grandfather who had gone to bed, we were all in one room—at the kitchen table, the island, the computer desk, the cushioned chairs by the window—and we were listening to a history of the people in my family. It’s a history that never directly affected me, but it shaped them, and my two cousins, my father and his siblings. It dealt with how their careers brought them in contact, and it was entwined with stories I already knew, about my dad’s mother (who passed away years ago), and my dad’s grandparents, uncles and aunts. It made me think about how my own parents got together, and how everyone with these different lives had been drawn back home to be together again.
One family line, all in one room. It’s a little amazing, if you sit back and think about it, as I did.
The morning of the day we left, my father and I got in the car and drove over to the neighborhoods where he’d grown up. There were multiple houses to see. My dad took me down the paper route he’d had with his brother, past the homes of kids they’d played with, the schools they’d all attended. He told me about how people viewed the second neighborhood in general, the stereotypes they had for the individuals who hailed from there. He showed me dead ends that were no longer dead ends, schools that had come and gone, and reminisced about being kids out at recess, all dressed in ski pants and sliding down icy slopes without sleds. We pondered the existence of new streets, new schools, new houses. I pondered what it would be like taking my future children to the neighborhoods where I grew up.
There’s such a backstory here, a thousand details little and big, faces remembered and lives lived heartily. Older people who were young and young people who will one day be old with their own stories. Hell, we’ve already got stories, some that many don’t hear about due to mere circumstance. It’s a rich, undiscovered world well worthy of exploration.
Not So Random Writing Exercise: Explore a character’s family tree. Who are the people who came before? The people that came along at the same time? The people they married or didn’t marry, and the people who interacted with them? If there aren’t any people, why? Did they never exist or have they already gone? Sit them all around a kitchen table and tell them the stories of their lives.