Half my life ago (that's 15 years for those of you keeping track), Sundays were a big family affair. My grandparents (on my Dad's side) lived not so far from us - conveniently along the highway between our house and our church. My Uncle George, Aunt Jan and their kids lived not far either and attended the same church. Uncle George and Aunt Jan had 3 kids - Julie, Matt and Jimmy. They were all older than me - the youngest, Jim, about 4 years older than me. They were my cousins, though they were more like friends.
Every Sunday, after Sunday school, Jim would drive all of us younger ones to Grandma's house (Grandpa was there, too, but it was always Grandma's house) where the rest of the family had gathered. We'd have coffee time. Homemade cake (not the box-mix stuff), crackers, cheese, cookies, koolaid, coffee, conversation. All of us gathered tightly around her kitchen table - no elbow room to spare. We'd sit and laugh and share life. After a while we'd all go our separate ways - head home for a late lunch. It was like this every single Sunday of my childhood.
Until Uncle George and Aunt Jan and all their adult, now married children, moved away. And Grandpa and Grandma ended up in a nursing home due to Grandpa's advancing alzheimers. Soon, Grandpa and Grandma were carried home. And my immediate family was left. Strangely alone. No more coffee times at Grandma's house. No more big family gatherings on holidays. No more cousins.
Not long after Brian and I got married, Uncle George and Aunt Jan and their kids landed back in Iowa - attending the same church as Brian's parents. It's been fun to see them each time we visit Brian's family. But those visits are infrequent.
This Memorial weekend we found ourselves at Brian's parents' house to celebrate Derek's (Brian's youngest brother) 8th grade graduation. And this time, I wanted to make more of an effort to see my family beyond the 15 minutes after church on Sunday. A few phone calls were made, tentative plans pencilled in.
Saturday morning Brian, Reagan, Madison and I journeyed down gravel roads to houses we had never visited. Our first stop was Uncle George and Aunt Jan's house. I had not seen them in years - probably nearly 3 or more. A few years ago, Aunt Jan was diagnosed with dementia. And in those few years her mental state has deteriorated progressively. I didn't know what to expect and Brian reminded me a few times to not be caught off guard.
We stepped out of the car, gathered our girls out of the carseats, and walked across the grass to Aunt Jan. Her first words indicated that her world was now not the same one we lived in. She saw people, conversed with people, reacted to people that were only present in her world. I gave her a hug, though she didn't know my name or who I was. Uncle George walked across the yard to give us all hugs. He had been watching because he has to. After the hugs he gently took my Aunt's hand in his to keep her from wandering away. He warned us right away that the words of her mouth were 100% babble. And they were. We visited as my heart ached. He was as warm and sweet as he had always been to me. And while I was so happy to find him the same Uncle George that he had always been, my eyes looked at a woman who distantly resembled my Aunt Jan. Time had not been kind to her. But he loved her as faithfully and patiently as he could. The woman who now required more time, attention and care than an infant. We didn't stay long - maybe 25 minutes or so. And then I hugged them both and told them both that I loved them. He held me tightly for several long seconds, his one hand still gently holding hers.
Soon we were back in our car, driving just a short ways down the gravel to another farmhouse. Jim was mowing his yard, his 3 year old son sitting snuggly, safely in his lap. As soon as we were out of the car, Dusty ran over to us with a smile and a hug. Dusty, the sweet boy they had adopted after years of praying for the gift of a child. Dusty, only weeks older than my much-prayed for Reagan. Jim greeted us and introduced us to their dog, Boomer. Sarah, Jim's wife, came out of the house not long after and joined our group in the yard. She walked slowly as she had just gotten out of the hospital days earlier after a real struggle with back-to-back surgeries due to an infection after an appendectomy. It wasn't long before Reagan and Dusty were playing in the sandbox, checking out the cows, and Sarah and I sat in the porch swing - trying to catch up in the short time we had. Dusty and Reagan climbed into his treehouse, but Reagan couldn't climb the ladder back down. Brian was busy with Madison, so 6'5" tall Jim carefully reached for my daughter and brought her down. Jim, the cousin closest to my age and my heart - the one who had been the closest thing to an older brother in my life for all those many childhood years. The whole thing was just so surreal. As if all of a sudden we found ourselves transported from 1996 to 2010.
I sat and tried to reconcile what I remembered of my family to what we were now. And I knew I must seem as different to them as they did to me. So different. Yet so much the same. Our lives have taken such different paths. And we have not been spared from pain and struggle. But as the wind blew cool in the shade I smiled to see that the love has never left. And though we have drifted apart, we are still very much family.
I brought my camera along Saturday morning. I had intentions of taking pictures and making a whole really great scrapbook page to remember our visit. But it was immediately clear that this was not a time to take pictures with a camera. These were people I loved that had been and were going through a great deal. And we were not there to take pictures of them. We were there just to talk - to reconnect as best we could - to love them in the small way we could. My mind is still so full of those two short visits on Saturday. Things change with time. Time is not always kind or good. Things do not always get better. Even love changes with time. In this case, it grew stronger, deeper and truer than it had ever been.