I love stories with dual timelines. I love the richness of discovering how the past shapes a person, how a sheltered upbringing might hinder intellectual growth or a childhood trauma might strengthen character.
This weekend I witnessed my own family’s layers of history unfold. It was a complicated weekend, planned in two days by my ever-efficient meeting planner sister.
After an unfortunate mix-up, we learned with only four days notice that my mother’s only brother was having a 90th birthday party. When my mom first called to tell me about it, she knew what the rest of us did not—that she would find a way to be at that party. Never mind that her memory isn’t what it used to be, that she’s been in assisted living for the past several years, that all four of her daughters work full-time and then some. I reasoned with her to explain, as much as we wanted to take her, we didn’t think it was feasible at this late date. Eventually she gave in, somewhat defeated, and I went to sleep feeling like a heel.
Why not? I thought the next morning. My calendar was relatively free, despite my niece’s first communion, and in a few minutes, I emailed my sisters of my intentions. Before I could say direct flight, the efficient sister had booked a roundtrip to BWI, two roundtrips to Providence, Rhode Island, with a Saturday night hotel near the party, and bookend hotel rooms for my Friday and Sunday nights at BWI.
Walking toward baggage claim I saw my uncle standing near a tile pillar, a tiny but striking man even at 90, his shoulders lifting slightly as he saw my mother. I followed behind her as she approached him, the years they hadn’t seen each other floating away like bad dreams. Seeing the two of them together filled me with joy, but hearing their stories as they reminisced, sealed the treasure in my heart forever.
My mom tells of their running away together at 10 and 12, leaving Washington, D.C., en route to Richmond, Virginia where their father lived. They got as far as Alexandria and were picked up by the police, who were more interested in ensuring their safety than scolding, and promptly gave them ice cream cones to wait for their anxious mother. I pictured the two of them, roaming the streets together, big brother protecting little sister, each likely too afraid of disappointing the other to turn around and go home.
Later I learned of his marrying my aunt on the eve of shipping out for the war in 1941 and that my mother and her cousin accompanied a lonely wife on her honeymoon. I also pressed my uncle for information on the long-suspected family bootlegging operation, convinced he must have picked up details as a child living in close proximity to his father and four uncles.
We thumbed through pictures I’d spread in front of us, pictures I’d culled from my mother’s house when we moved her out. There was my mother at sixteen, flashing a smile I’ve never seen. Another layer showed my uncle in his navy uniform, still another, a grandmother surrounded by her two children's families. Best of all, the most recent layer of history, a sister and brother at 88 and 90.