Saturday, July 16, 2016

Rambling Thoughts on a Recent Family Reunion

I have never been prouder of being a Steele as I am after having attended my family reunion. I come from good, hard-working Kansas farm folk. There were seven (living) Steele siblings: Zella, Alva, Eldo, Wayne, Floyd, Louene, and Bob. Zella had one daughter who has passed, but otherwise there was at least one representative from each of the other siblings.

We have gathered to celebrate the last sibling of her generation, Louene. First for her 99th birthday, then her 100th, and now her 101st.

Louene is an inspiration. Her eyes still twinkle and her smile lights up her face. I had the opportunity to sit next to her for awhile and ask questions about her life and my grandpa, Wayne. When someone asked her what it was like to grow up with five brothers, she said, "Well, I guess I survived. I'm here to tell the tale, but they're not."





 She had an album full of black and white photos from her nurse's training days and the six months she spent in the army nursing wounded soldiers. In the pages of that album, I found some treasures.


This photo above is of my Dad's dad, Wayne Kenneth. I love his smile and posture in this photo. I love that I can see my Dad's face in Wayne's face. I also love how happy he seems. My memories of him are of his later years when his posture was stooped and he didn't have much to say. I asked Aunt Louene about that and she assured me that he was not a "sad quiet" only quiet. Apparently my Uncle Floyd was happy-go-lucky and talkative, so Wayne (or anyone else) wouldn't have had a chance to get a word in. This revelation made me feel better.


My grandmother, Maxine, is the blond standing second from the left. My grandpa is peeking through the back row. I like this photo because for the first time ever, I can see a resemblance between she and me. I've never seen it before now.


Wayne and Louene took a trip to Colorado together in 1938. God Bless Louene for labeling the photos when she did! There's no doubt about the whos or whens of these photos.


This is a photo of my great-grandmother Hattie. As my cousins told me more about her throughout our visit, I got the distinct feeling that I had unknowingly been channeling this woman as I created the grandmother in my novel. It was a goosebumps moment. On many occasions, I questioned whether I was creating someone who could believably be who I was creating her to be, but through stories of Hattie, I know it's possible. It's what I'd call an Elizabeth Gilbert "Big Magic" moment.


I find this photograph absolutely astounding. This is Hattie holding newborn Louene in the bed where she gave birth in a neighbor's home. The Steele family had come down with sickness, so Hattie had to go to another home to deliver her child. Can you imagine? I'm stunned that someone  in 1915 thought to capture the moment and I am so glad he or she did.


 In this photo, my grandmother is the woman on the right in the front row. Maybe I see the resemblance here even more. Gramps is in the overalls, second from the right.


This is my cousin, John. We never lived near each other growing up, but I have happy memories of our visits together. He's smart and witty and kind. He always makes me laugh. I feel privileged to get to know him and his beautiful family better now in adulthood.


These two girls are cousins who live a state away, but are inseparable each summer. They made cards, played dolls, swam, and had a sleepover in the hotel. I can feel how their bond is forming each time they are together and it makes me so happy and grateful for these summer reunions.


This is my cousin, Scott's wife, Jo. She is awesome and amazing and we bonded over breakfast on Sunday morning because she has three boys under six and was busy the day before. We live only a few hours from each other and plan to meet up, so another generation of Steeles can bond and become each other's people. I have two cousins in my Dad's generation who are like aunties to me. They do the work of keeping the family together despite the many branches of the family tree and the miles that distance us.

On the morning we were heading out, I told them that I'd like us to keep these annual gatherings going even when there isn't a big birthday to celebrate. Jo piped up and said she wanted to help. I said, "We'll be the matriarchs-in-training!" Then Jo said, "Can I please be Marny? I want her long arm quilting machine!"

And so, Jo and I are the Carole and Marny of the next generation.

"Aunt" Carole and our Matriarch
There are so many questions I wished I'd asked my grandparents and our family's patriarch, Uncle Eldo (he requires a post of his own.) So during this reunion, I asked all the questions I could think of while we're all still together. I sat and listened and watched as family interacted. I know our histories and that there have been misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and other unpleasant times. But I also watched how time heals and grants new perspectives. I watched how kind we were to one another. I learned about others who have felt like black sheep in their own part of the family tree. I felt encouraged that I can continue to navigate my way through those feelings and still feel connected to the larger family and the stories that are passed down. I felt a sense of awe and gratitude for being born into this big, imperfect, happy family.

I drove home with a sense of peace and joy overflowing.

And anxious for next summer's gathering.