After spending a few days visiting my niece Bronwyn at St Olaf College, I met up with some relatives in Rochester, about an hour of the way back toward Iowa City. I had dinner with my cousin Diane, my dad’s brother’s eldest daughter, third of seven kids whose first names all begin with “D.” I don’t know why this fascinated me so much as a kid, but I thought it was a great game to try to recite all their names in order:
David was my favorite, at least for the scant handful of times I can even remember meeting him. He was a sweet little guy, I suppose, but he was a lot older than I was, so from my perspective, he was older, kind, funny—a hero. Who knows where my toddler self got this idea, or why I’ve hung onto that memory, but I did.
I don’t know if I ever knew Danny or Dale much, but I remember Diane of childhood much the same way—older, kind, a hero. She was a tiny bit older than my brother, Kevin. I guess Debbie was closest in age to me, and Darlene and Donald were both younger, but we didn’t have a whole lot of contact and I remember very little of it. We all kind of drifted off in various directions, I guess. Their parents got divorced. Our gramma died. We didn’t visit that often to begin with, and maybe it became harder to get together with them when we did? I don’t know.
Diane turned back up about a decade later, when I was in grad school. Got married, started trying to put the pieces of our extended family back together, came and saw us in North Dakota where my folks lived at the time. She researched our roots in Norway and made several trips to the old country to find our relatives. Another decade gone by, and like everyone else on the planet, we began reconnecting by email, and in another decade, Facebook—which led eventually to our getting to know a second cousin from Norway.
And along with Diane, I got to be Facebook friends with Deb Vang, the fifth of the seven, also friends with Diane and surely her sister. Or so I thought—but a month or two later, when Deb and I got into a particularly enjoyable exchange (read “debate”) on Facebook, Deb said I was her new favorite relative (I had much the same feeling) but asked how it was that we were related exactly.
I was stumped. She wasn’t the fifth of my cousins? My dad Paul’s brother Carl’s daughter Debbie?
But she figured it out. She was married to Matt, son of David, son of Carl, my dad Paul’s brother, so we’re first cousins once removed, or something like that.
Anyway, she and Matt (and their wee daughter) also came to dinner, and afterward, I crashed at their place for the night before my Wednesday morning drive back to Iowa City.
It was great fun catching up with Diane and meeting Matt and Deb. After Diane had gone home and Deb and daughter had gone to bed, Matt and I got to talking, and the world got smaller: we figured out that he’d been hired at his job at IBM (doing SPSS technical support) by my old colleague at SYSTAT, John Bauer.
And Matt told me about his dad, my cousin David. That sweet little guy had not had an easy life, and it’s no accident that he seemed to disappear from the scene about the same time I was old enough to know the difference. His life didn’t get a lot better with adulthood, and—no surprise—he didn’t exactly turn out to be the world’s best husband or dad. But Matt told me a story about why he will forever appreciate his dad and forgive him his shortcomings. I wish I could tell the story here, but it’s not my story to tell, and everybody’s still alive, so I think all I have the right to say here myself was that I’d gotten it right a million years ago when I saw a sweetness in David.
I think I also get to say that his sweetness found its way into his son, Matt, who is as impressive a young man as I will ever need to be related to—and Matt found himself a helluva wife. Good on you, Matt and Deb, and thank you Diane for assembling some of the twigs of our scattered family tree.
This is a kaddish for all the family we never really knew in the first place.