Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Posts Tagged ‘family’

Ghosts in the Attic: Lives Remembered

An attic is in many ways similar to the vast storage facilities that lie hidden beneath and above every museum you’ve ever visited. The exhibits you walk through are like the life you see being lived right in front of you. If you are an experienced museum goer the existence of that treasure trove of unseen artwork is something you know is there somewhere. For the archivist, all of that art is there for the asking.

A life remembered lives in the attic or the basement or the back of a closet in the remotest room in the house. Beth spent 3 long days and nights pulling together the totems of her parents lives from the nooks, crannies and crevasses of what is literally the Hurst family ancestral home. No fewer than 4 generations lived significant parts of their lives in what was once a tiny one-room schoolhouse surrounded by Amish and Mennonite farms. What an incredibly daunting task, that.

Hearing her tell of her task (we were “together” on speakerphone) was what it must have been like if you could have been an open ear at the excavation of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome. The attic had an attic; each closet had a closet. Every step further into each space unearthed another layer of the family’s history. Here a deed to the original schoolhouse, there the wedding certificate for her great great grandparents. Was her Dad a good student? Well, he had a pretty solid 3rd grade judging by his report card.

And the pictures! Oh my, yes, there were pictures. Beth and her sisters fell straight down the Schaeffer family tree. Who knew how much they looked like their Mom when they were all younger women? I got to see pictures of the stunning beauty I fell in love with some 35 years ago, a literal restoration of the portrait in my mind’s eye of our days of courtship. Treasures unearthed in the attic.

Stories, journals, histories, legends…they all came out of the attic’s attic and emerged from the closet’s closets. Beth’s “legs” fairly buckled under the responsibility of curation. What to keep? What should go? They are the last of their line, these Hurst sisters. Whatever was consigned to go would be forever gone. There are no more attics; there will be nothing to curate. She felt the presence of not only her parents but of their parents, and theirs, and theirs as well.

Is this nothing more than a melancholy musing on memory and loss? Maybe. There was a lesson in there, though, one that Mrs. bingo and I stumbled upon as we “walked” through those archives together. It didn’t have to happen like that. As it turns out each attic corner, each tiny closet contained notes and stories that lead, like so many tiny treasure maps, to the next discovery. Why had my in-laws not taken us all in hand and walked us together along those pathways? For sure there were stories that should have been buried elsewhere, art not meant to be seen by generations hence (note to self: remember this lesson when it is time), but still, we thought of the joy we could have shared had we just known these treasures were there to share. That’s the lesson my friends, one that Beth would agree afterward was worth the lonely emotional lifting she did as she curated a life remembered, archived like so many art treasures in the attics and closets filled over generations and hidden from view.

Someone may be alive today who’s been filling those attics. Find them. There is joy in the attic. Like so much that is joyful, to share your discoveries with those who created them is just too wonderful to let it pass now that you know that you don’t have to. Ask your parents or grandparents to take a walk with you in the attic. Together.

 

Nothing Left to Lose

“When he lost his life, it was all he had left to lose.” –Lynard Skynard

Catching up on newspapers piled up while I was away last night I happened upon an article written by David Gregory, former moderator of “Meet the Press”. Mr. Gregory was on a bit of a spiritual quest, one that coincided with some turmoil in his professional life. As part of this journey he spent some time with an Erica Brown, a Jewish educator. After listening to his professional laments she offered this stunner: who would you be if you lost it all?

Stopped me right in my tracks, that one did.

Think about that for a minute. How the question was phrased and what she was asking. Not “what would you do?” or “how would you handle it?” but “who would you be?” The implication is that who you are at any given moment is only one version of who you might be capable of being given different circumstances, however wonderful or unpleasant. It dovetails very nicely, indeed, with my recent fascination with the multiverse, the quantum physics derived concept that there is an infinite number of versions of our universe in existence at any given moment.

Spend a few more minutes thinking about what it means to lose it all. For Mr. Gregory it meant losing his dream job, a job in which who he was became inextricably linked to what he did. I get that, but Mr. Gregory is still able to seek employment as a journalist, still able to work in his field. What if you could no longer do that? Say you’re a doctor and you lose either the ability or the right to practice medicine? Think “The Fugitive”. Trust me, doctors are way more wrapped up in the “what I do is who I am” thing than journalists. Just thinking about that–being prevented from being a doctor– makes me sick to my stomach. Imagine if you couldn’t work at all. Couldn’t support yourself or your loved ones and had to depend on others. That’s starting to close in a little bit more on “losing it all” I think. Who would you be then?

There’s no way of knowing if Ms. Brown meant to go this deeply, but in the developed world we live pretty well;  there’s actually a boatload of stuff we take for granted that could be lost. What if you lost your freedom? You are incarcerated, or in some way someone gains so much leverage over you that you must do their every biding. Who would you be, what part of who you have the capability of being would come to the fore if you were no longer free? Joe Coughlin, the central character in a Dennis Lehane novel I just finished compromised his father’s position as a police captain in order to buy favor and therefore survive in prison. In so doing he lost his freedom forever, even after leaving prison. He became a man without a moral compass, ruining and even taking lives in pursuit of other men’s goals.

But even at that, Coughlin hadn’t yet lost everything. What brought him to that precipice was the loss of his people. You’ve watched “Law and Order” I’m sure. I don’t remember many individual episodes of any series I ever watch, but one “Law and Order” dealing with loss comes to mind. The detectives discover a man in an institution who is mute, nearly catatonic. They need his testimony; he is the only witness to a heinous crime. In order to gain access to his memory they obtain a court order to treat him for his depression. His recovery is miraculous, and initially he is grateful for his awakening, grateful to meet distant relatives who are delighted for the return of an uncle they’d lost. All well and good until it is time to testify and we learn that he lost his job, his ability to work, and his entire immediate family in that heinous crime. Awakening means remembering that he has truly lost it all.

Who would you be if you lost it all? This poor man had nothing, and he discovered that without his people he was no one. Who would you be? His answer was “no one at all”. He refused treatment and slid back inward to nothing.

There’s a point here. A couple of them, actually. The first is that each one of us has much, much more of pretty much everything than we realize. Most of what we might lose is not really all that close to any type of “everything”, and that should inform how we view what we do have and what we are willing to do to keep it. Who would you be BEFORE losing something in order to not actually lose it? To know this is to know what we are willing to do if we need to fight not to lose everything. It’s a little closer to knowing who we really are, now.

Read this backwards from here. It hurts to lose stuff. It’s hard to get by with less money if you’ve tasted more, especially if you think you’ve become someone else because of that stuff. It’s worse if you kinda like that someone; losing the kind of job Mr. Gregory had stings. Time and again, though, we see that true loss is less easily quantified than a spreadsheet or income statement or title. To lose your people is to truly lose everything. No amount of fight is too great to not have to learn who you would be after this type of loss. Losing your freedom makes it easier to lose your people. Someone else plots your every course. Who you are needs to be someone who does as much as humanly possible to remain free.

Mr. Gregory seems to have made this leap. In the end his job was simply what he did at the time for work. Losing it actually brought his spiritual quest home, to his people. That’s the other point, right? It’s your people. You’ve not lost everything if you’ve not lost your people. Know who your people are and hold them close. Cherish and nurture them. Do it out loud and without either fear or shame.

Do whatever it takes to never have to learn who you would be if you did, truly, lose everything.

Holiday Passages

A pop psychology author, classmate of my parents, once examined life’s stages in a book titled Passages. While I am no fan of her work (somewhat shallow and bereft of any real insight), her choice of a term for major phases of our lives is pretty good. “Passages”. Kind of evokes a journey of sorts. That part of her writing was pretty good.

Our family  will gather this weekend and this has me thinking a bit about those passages. All of our children will spend part of the Holidays with their in-laws; our boys will spend a bit of time with us. Young people truly become a kind of real adult when they take on the responsibility of nurturing a third entity, their marriage. Beth and I used to joke that we would feel like we were “real” adults when we owned our own washer and dryer, but really, we’d gone and grown up as soon as we consciously put our marriage ahead of either of our individual selves. This realization is all we really ask of our young marrieds in these, their middle passages.

This year many of our Christmas tables will have empty seats, or seats that will empty earlier than usual. That final passage demands as much attention as the first one, childhood; it just doesn’t really end as well. Still, it’s also a miracle that we go so very long before that last passage begins, both for us and for those we love. I am struck this week with a single thought: slow down and stay. Stay tiny. Stay young. Stay vibrant. Stay here and now.

Just stay.

In the end all of these passages are a one-way trip. You never back up. You don’t stand still. There’s really no such thing as a Mulligan or a do-over. It’s amazing how much help we need as we start our journey and then again as our journey comes to an end. In the middle, well, we have control. Dwelling in either the past or the future diminishes our present. Doesn’t it make sense to look at each day as its own kind of little miracle? Perhaps aware of what came before (a baby) and conscious of what lies ahead (an empty chair), all the while rejoicing in the miracle of right now.

Safe travels to all on their Holiday Passage.

Thanksgiving Exposes the Lie of Remote Connectivity

Oh man…what’re we gonna do with all of this soup?!

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. My favorite weekend of the year will be officially over tonight when Beth and I have turkey soup for dinner, likely alone save for our dogs. (As an aside, I am ever thankful that we still have our little 15yo Shitpoo, Tiny Tim). We’ll dawdle over the fixings and the trimmings of the Holiday as we pack it away in various nooks and crannies. Christmas officially started with the ceremonial playing of the original Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas opera. We careen out of thanks and hurtle into giving.

Each Thanksgiving has its own, special feel, at least around the White house. Two things come to mind this year, the first being that I had no idea what day it was at any single time other than during our family dinner on Thursday. Weird, huh? Usually my life is filled with some version of “if I’m doing this it must be” or “it’s Friday, so I’m doing this” time stamping. Not this weekend. There was so much coming and going, so many interlocking, intersecting, and ultimately connecting schedules I just went into “point and shoot” mode: tell me where to be, when to be there, and what to wear, and I’ll do my best.

Social media has been the talk of the nation for quite some time now. Thanksgiving reinforced something I’ve known for quite a few years now. Yes, we can certainly increase our ability to connect with pretty much anyone on stuff like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. We can reach out for a quick touch on text, or send along a longer message via email. All of these have increased in their perceived importance year over year, comically at the expense of telephone calls especially. It seems that more and more people behave as if all they need to do to nurture their relationships is send an occasional text or tag someone on a Facebook post.

Thanksgiving is the antidote to that kind of madness, at least the type of Thanksgiving we have at Casa Blanco.

Nothing can possibly take the place of a hug. No type of Social Media contact is as meaningful as looking into the eyes of a friend as you shake hands. We get a daily dose of the “Nugget” via text pics from her Mom, but come on, seeing that precious little face smiling up at you as you pick her up out of her little crib? It was too wonderful for words to have Dan and Brittany here for dinner Wednesday night. No amount of texting, calling, or SM was gonna make it sting any less when we had to bid them “see you later” early Friday morning because they had to be back home to Columbus (congrats on the ½ Marathon Brit!). Saying goodbye this morning to Megan and her Ryan, even after a 5-day visit, just gutted me.

I’m no Luddite; I love me some Twitter, etc., and using Social Media to enhance your closest connections is way more pleasant than the silly BS we’ve been subjecting ourselves to lately, right? Think about it, though. Think about how very wonderful it was this weekend if you had a chance to see some part of your family that DOESN’T live in the town next door. How great it was to see the twinkle in a brother’s eyes as he told your spouse about that time you fell out of a tree at Gram’s house. You had a drink with your best friend from forever and she could barely get through that story about that one night in college that you’ve sworn will never be told to your kids. Everyone held hands around the table as you said Grace and shared your favorite memory of Gramp because this is the first year he’s not with you.

They’ve not yet posted a Facebook memory that is as real, as meaningful as the one you share face to face with friends or family. Thank Heavens The Man Cub is napping at my house and will soon awaken and be ready for an adventure with his Papi. I’m already missing the kids who went home. Already counting the days until I get to snuggle The Nugget. Thinking of family members who celebrated in their own homes. I dream of friends from long ago and far away, dream of sharing handshakes and hugs.

Real, reach out and actually touch connections, courtesy of Thanksgiving. Hope yours was Happy and crowded.

 

 

Cape Week: In Memorium

The beach was chilly, the water a boiling mass of foam, yet the sand was smooth and calm.  Unaffected. Doubtless, it had seen this before. My eyes began to leak. It must have been the wind. Yes, that’s it. The wind. I stood there in silence, struggling to fix the image in my mind. I knelt down to kiss the sand of my beloved beach. With a shirtsleeve to stem the flow from my eyes I walked away from 25 years of family history and toward the beginning of a new story.

What does it take to bring together an entire family for 7 days under one roof, every year, for 25 consecutive years? Why even start in the first place? Once upon a time families were born, grew, and died in a single town or small group of neighboring towns. Getting together was a given. Holidays presented a challenge born of access: who would host whom for what occasion at what time and for how long? Your Mom or your spouse’s Mom for Thanksgiving or Christmas or whenever. A cousin’s graduation might be a life-or-death obligation, attendance mandatory. Proximity rendered this moot, but we moved away.

First borns both, Beth and I married first and had the first grandchildren. We hit every adulting stage before any of our siblings. This meant encountering in-law issues first as well. Where would we go and when? Sticky wicket, that. The solution, at least for the White family was the creation of a separate holiday totally removed from any established American tradition. We would all go to the beach together, just like we did as kids. Thus began “Cape Week”.

How do you get 4 young couples, all of which had multiple children to return time and again to the same place at the same time to do pretty much the same stuff each year for 25 years? It could be having a parent everyone was afraid of, or another no one wanted to disappoint. For sure having BOTH was a key component. Through every milestone each little family plowed through and found a way to make it to Cape Cod each year to spend every waking moment together in our little compound. Only serious illness kept anyone away.

Over the years change did eventually come in the way of summer jobs for the grandchildren, which led as such things do to real, live adult jobs with little vacation time. That and of course, another generation of in-laws for our children to now contend with. Whispers of change were on the winds these last couple of years, but still, almost everyone was there for almost the whole week each summer.

I know what you’re thinking. Somehow it must have been easy for us. There must have been some sort of massive bribe, or something. Nope. What it took was a ton of commitment and hard work by four (now not so) young couples to make Cape Week happen. One family came from California for several years, another from the Midwest. There were summer camps that were never attended, All-Star teams made but All-Star Games missed. The classic teen rebellions against family were quashed, all 10 cousins showing up many more years than not. Invitations to vacation alternatives were graciously turned down, and every “how come always your family” discussion always ended with some version of “we can do that, too, just some other week.”

Cape week itself took hard work and commitment. Four families, 10 kids, and two grandparents together for meals, beach games, TV at night, and forays en masse to the ice cream shop. It could be a little bit cramped, even with the addition of a second cottage in year 4. Those 10 cousins from homes scattered all over America have grown up to be friends who know an amazing amount about each other despite their age differences and lack of proximity. For instance, 10+ summers of having the “college talk” with their aunts and uncles is uniformly one of their WORST memories. Yet there they were as well, every summer in which there was no unavoidable conflict.

Until this year.

Why now? Why this, our 25th year, are we now closing the book on the last chapter of Cape Week? The easy answer is the loss of one of those grandparents, my Dad. It really doesn’t matter whether he was the one we were afraid of or the one we didn’t want to disappoint, I think it’s more a matter of needing both to make something like Cape Week a forgone conclusion. That one singular loss seems to have opened the door for each family to consider the value of Cape Week to their individual families.  To think the heretofore unthinkable: something is more important to our family unit than the annual assembly of the extended family.

Is that it then? Is it over, 25 years and out? It’s been an extraordinary run. Not a one of us knows a soul who’s even heard of a family that pulled off something like this. What is clearly over is Cape Week written in stone, and while that has always been inevitable if any of us ever really gave it any thought, it is quite sad nonetheless. We will continue to rent the main house, installing Gram for a week in the same chair at dinner, on the same spot on the beach. A calendar will say that it’s number 26, but it will be different. A new Cape Week, year number 1, invitations soon. Who will come?

If I close my eyes I can still see my beach. See it, as it has been these 25 years. With my eyes closed I see my Mom and Dad, young and vibrant, surrounded by babies and toddlers covered in sand and seaweed. There’s my brother and his wife, my sisters and their husbands, my darling Beth. We’re all together. My eyes have begun to leak again and it’s all a blur. There’s a breeze in my house; there must be a window open. Yes, that must be it, an open window has let in the wind.

The winds of change have finally come for Cape Week.

 

Cape Week

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that the only constant is change; the only thing in life on which you can depend is that things will not always ever be the same. An important corollary to this is that all things, good or bad, will come to an end. So it appears to be in my little slice of the world. While it’s not quite clear exactly when, it is clear that a very important part of my adult life is near an end.

This is the weekend when Beth and I digest the latest iteration of the annual White Family Cape Cod vacation week. For 23 consecutive years all, or almost all, of my family has congregated in the same 2 cottages across the street from the ocean in the idyllic little town of West Dennis, MA. After that comes 12-14 hours of driving home, a rolling debriefing and decompression from a full-immersion experience into my family. For 8 years or so both vacation and the drive home have been fodder for my “Sunday musings”, some of my best. Although some aspects of the vacation were as immutable as Bill Murray waking up in that hotel room every day in Groundhog Day–a seeming violation of my “everything changes” dictum–each year has actually turned out to be a truly unique story told exactly once. For 23 years. It’s really been a remarkable streak when you think about it.

The genesis of this annual odyssey was my youngest sister’s wedding and the addition of a fourth set of in-laws to the family Holiday dynamic. Beth and I are both first borns. We were the first to marry and the first to bring members of the next generation into the family. We have always lived a mutually disagreeable distance from both families, in the backyard of neither, and no closer to either. Both families were equally unhappy with our zip code. Really a compliment, when you think about it.

As part of this it was clear right from the start that there would be no winning and losing when it came to family visits on the big 2 American Holidays Thanksgiving and Christmas. Nope, it was gonna be all War of the Roses, just degrees of losing. My proposed solution? We would declare a summer White Family Holiday and we would all convene in one place for a week together. Thus began 23 years of “The Cape Week.” When we began my caboose, Randy, was 6 weeks old, the 5th of what would become a gaggle of 10 grandchildren, the youngest of whom is now an 8th grader. Somewhere there’s a picture of him dwarfed by a 15 lb. lobster at dinner in year one.

For 23 years we distilled each year’s visits into a single week. We laughed and we cried, whispered and screamed. We loved and not-so-loved over each week as my generation fell into and out of our childhood family roles. It’s kinda like draft slots, right? You sit at the same place at the family dinner table and its even called “Beth’s seat”, or “Darrell’s seat”, or whomever. Whatever your place was in the family (agitator, comforter, achiever, slacker) at some point in the week you fell right into your allotted space. Triumphs and tribulations were tabulated as we offered each other all manner of advice and support. Some of it even solicited! In some years we single-handedly kept the vintners of California solvent with our dinner-time consumption.

So why now? Why is this summer the year that the end is nigh? Ah, it’s that old bugaboo, change. The younger couples and their children were paying attention and they have seen what it takes for the grandchildren to attend as they get older; this has (rightfully) given them pause. It’s hard, very hard, to make a week like this happen every year. As the kids get older, move through their school years and into real life, getting them to the Cape becomes ever more challenging, even when they truly want to be there. More than that, though, is the inexorable change wrought by time in my parents, Gram and Gramp. Soon, much too soon, the trip will either be too much for them to handle, or they’ll not be with us to handle it at all. All things come to an end, after all. Even something as unlikely and wonderful as a family of 20 meeting for a week on the same beach for 23 years.

The lessons are as obvious as they are at once joyous and sad. Good things are worth the effort it takes to keep them alive. My family, led by my brother, will likely try to do just that. Even good things, or the best of things, will eventually succumb to change and perhaps even come to an end. These realizations are bittersweet in our case for they bring along the dread for what this proxy for ultimate change portends. Late one night Mrs. bingo was awakened to the sounds of my muffled sobs as the end appeared before me. This year? Next? Change is the only constant. Everything comes to an end.

As I turned to leave, not knowing if I would ever return, I bent down to kiss my beloved beach goodbye.