Today, Nick and I set out to do what we have never done before. We bought dimension lumber and nails to build a headboard for a king-size bed. Neither of us had ever built such a structure before. But Nick found a YouTube video that gave us a good idea for our work. He set to draw it out on paper. He and I made measurements, planned our trajectory, and set about the task.
After we bought the wood and retrieved our tools—tape measure, straightedge, pencil, wood rasp, chop saw, hand saws, hammer, and L-square—we looked at our raw materials and envisioned what we wanted. We saw a thing of beauty—rough and simple and good.
Work like this gives me time to think. This was a father-son project, a family task that followed a summer of family gatherings and new beginnings. As I watched Nick mark boards and organize our wood, I again thought of the intense time this summer has been for me. I stuffed a lot of family in the last few months.
It started in May when I went to visit my parent figures Josef and Marlies Frick in Wawern, Germany. My sole purpose was to spend time with them. We did family things together, like cooking and taking walks. We entertained a couple of my friends for a few days. Josef and I worked in the garden. We went to the doctor, grocery shopping, and did laundry. Just good stuff. Evenings, we spent talking around the coffee table in the living room. We watched the news and discussed events facing the European Union.
To say it was a good time for me is understatement. The kind of intellectual stimulation and heart-felt conversations we enjoyed renewed my spirit and gave me new energy for my daily life, which has been limping along lately with an unsuccessful job search and lack of a good project to give me direction. At the same time, it was a time of absorbing the finality of life and that finances and duties of home may just keep me from seeing them in the flesh again.
Then, six weeks or so after I returned from Germany, Nick and I went to Boise for my Uncle Steve’s memorial. Steve died last summer while scuba diving in Mexico. His wife, my Aunt Michelle, wisely waited to have the celebration after the initial shock of Steve’s death diminished.
It was something of a family reunion. I visited with my cousins Mark and Michelle, Steve and Michelle’s kids. It’s been years since we talked and the draw of family was on us. We did our best to catch up in the short time and among all the people we had to talk to that weekend. I found Mark and I had a great deal to talk about, much in common, and reason to stay in contact. I wish I’d had more time with Melissa, but a lifetime lay before us. We will get there.
I was able to have my first conversations with Mark and Melissa’s spouses, Allison and Tanvir. It was a great pleasure to meet them and get to know they some. Then, there was the kids, who I last saw as little children but who have grown into exciting people themselves. Everyone, without exception, was interested in Nick, what he’s doing, where his life is going, and what he wants to do.
Ten days ago, I went to Cincinnati to visit my younger sisters Christina and Angela. Before this, I had only seen Angela once in the last 35 years. It’s probably been that long since I talked to Christina more than five minutes at a time. Angela, the youngest of four siblings and my son Nick’s bio-mom, was in the hospital and with her mental state, needed someone to be by her at least part of every day she was lying in that bed. Christina’s overwhelmed with Angela’s care needed someone to share part of the burden. Christina and I had good conversations in the evenings after the days were done. Since I was staying at her house, it was convenient. We tread into the vagaries of childhood, the course of marriages, and our present conditions.
I spent a very special afternoon with my nephew Ben, Christina’s son. It’s been many years since I’ve seen him and this was probably our first substantial visit every. We caught up on what he’s done in what has been a very successful career. I found him to be a sympathetic and soft-natured soul who’s had plenty of travail but also has much ahead of him.
While I was in Cincinnati, my mom’s brother Bob (Steve’s older brother) had Christina and me over for an evening. There were my cousins Mike, Lisa, and Anna. These, too, are people I haven’t seen in years. The time was just too short, though we covered a lot of territory in the time we had. I found the three of them terrific, interesting, and curious about what our lives in Kansas City has turned out to be. I was sorry to have missed having a longer discussion with Lisa’s husband David but had a long talk with Anna’s husband, who I discovered is a deeply complex and ambitious man.
What all of this comes to is this: I haven’t ever been close to my family, at least not as close as I’ve been to the Fricks. Our immediate family growing up was a place, difficult to gage and arbitrary in its strictness. The four of us scattered when my parents moved to Reno in 1983. When I said goodbye, that was it, I thought. I never looked back.
But now for various reasons, these people have come back into my life and I kind of like it. I still haven’t processed all the emotions and implications of my journeys. There’s a lot there for me to come to terms with. How I accept long-estranged family members into my life? What roles will they play? I know very well how to deal with my own family—years and trial and error have taught me a great deal. I know from my parents how not to alienate my kids. I also know very well how to deal with close friends. But I’m on uncertain footing when it comes to family, immediate and extended.
As I was watching Nick do most of the work on our headboard today, one thought kept going through my mind. I have this part down, the father-son and father-daughter thing. I’m in uncertain territory when it comes to sisters and cousins. Nick measured. I sawed. He squared and nailed. I mulled around the intensity of the summer. The heat of the day set on us and I went to fetch water for Nick. He didn’t ask and I thought he would like one.
I get this, I thought, doing something for someone else. Maybe this is the key to absorbing family. Find what I can do, how I can be present, who I can talk to. I have the tools and materials. I can begin there. The rest of it is imaging what I want and what can be helpful to others. Something simple, and good.