Growing up, there were always adults sitting at tables, drinking coffee and laughing, while we cousins played in living rooms or ran through on our way outside. In Iowa, Grandma and Grandpa’s formica table with its green vinyl chairs, which left flourished paisley indentations on my legs when I sat too long, was the first place I remember adults gathering. Every once in a while in the mornings, I would slip under Grandpa’s arms as he put in his contacts and I would add more than the 2 drops of Sweet 10 allowed into his coffee. After one swallow, he would shift the cup to me, and I was allowed to drink the cup just like the adults at the table. Sometimes, in the evening, after the fireflies no longer blinked and we cousins were worn from our activities, I sat in the darkened living room, swallowed by grandpa’s recliner, eavesdropping on the adults. Their clatters of cups and spoken words trailed out of the lit kitchen like the slinking curl of their cigarette smoke escaping the cloud hovering over their heads. Occasionally, the CB Radio base crackled into the conversations that eluded understanding by a seven year old me.
It is, though, where I began to learn about and watch the personalities of my aunts and uncles as they mingled with each other. Uncle George was the oldest of my dad’s siblings, and when his family came to Iowa from Illinois it was like a holiday and everyone came to see them. Cousins streamed through the house, flowing around the mass of adults in the kitchen. Uncle George’s large frame was symbolic of his booming rumble when he spoke, and Aunt Judy’s smaller physique was a clear juxtaposition of her broad smile and unforgettable laugh. Uncle George’s hands were so large that only two of his fingers could fit through the handle of a coffee cup. Aunt Judy was always animated with movement, expression, and intelligence.
I had other memories of Uncle George and Aunt Judy, too. My family and theirs went on a camping trip to Yellowstone together and even though I was quite young, there are always two memory fragments about them that I can pull up. I remember laughter surrounding the memory of Melanie and Kenan in a true classic “kissing cousin” situation in the top bed of the 10 and ½ foot Red Dale slide-in camper, although being only about 3, their innocence and later embarrassment was what we enjoyed most. And, I remember, Aunt Judy and my mom being scared after hearing a bear outside, which might just as well have been Uncle George and my dad snoring in the tent pitched outside the truck. Both stories have been passed through our families’ oral histories colored by merriment.
It was later when I was in eighth grade and my older sister was graduating from high school that I began to learn about Uncle George and Aunt Judy. I knew my mom named my middle name after Aunt Judy’s middle name, Anne with an “e.” I also knew that Aunt Judy was my mom’s maid-of-honor when she married my dad, but until then I only understood Uncle George and Aunt Judy as a child observes adults, without understanding them as people. They came all the way from Minnesota to Worland, Wyoming to see Chrissy, my older sister, walk across the stage. That gesture was more important than I think they would ever know, mostly because my sister struggled with feelings of acceptance. Chrissy always felt loved by Uncle George and Aunt Judy. They were dear to her, and she would visit them when she was going through the Denver area. I remember Aunt Judy telling me how much they appreciated Chrissy’s help when Aunt Judy’s mom was staying with them because Chrissy entertained and helped out. I know Chrissy liked being around both Uncle George and Aunt Judy.
It was after Chrissy’s graduation that I went to stay with the Smiths in Minnesota for a couple of weeks. I had never traveled in that manner before. I sat in the back of the car between David and Jacqui, while Melanie rode up front between her parents, but it was because we made our way casually back to Northfield from Wyoming that made the experience different for me. They took their time getting from one place to the next. I remember that Uncle George and Aunt Judy wanted to be able to stop to admire the scenery, learn about an area, or enjoy watching us kids in the motel pool. I remember becoming an intimate part of their family that summer: eating family dinners, hanging in the basement with a large group of my cousin’s friends, or horsing around in the humid, fenceless Minnesota backyards. Aunt Judy delighted in having all of the kids running around the house. I can remember how proud she was of her children. Our Grandpa came to visit from Iowa, Grandma no longer with us, and he brought our cousin Lorri with him. While Jacqui, Lorri, and I danced to Toto in our pajamas in Jac’s room, the adults brought out the coffee and sat at the table, talking and laughing. I couldn’t tell you what they had conversations about as I know we were busy running through the dining area to get downstairs, but I do have a picture of Lorri and Jacqui standing behind our grandfather who sat at the table, cups clearly present. As young teens, we were too busy to even try to listen to the adult conversations.
Later in my life, I went to the University of Wyoming and Uncle George and Aunt Judy had retired to Longmont, Colorado. They had still managed to be a part of my life through those years in a time when long distance calls were costly and there wasn’t a social media platform to make connections easier. I remember times when I was flying through Denver that Uncle George and Aunt Judy would meet me outside of my gate and have a cup of coffee with me in the airport before my next plane left. Seeing the two of them waiting for me as I walked off the jet bridge provided me with a sense of love and security and, simply, just made me feel special. They always had easy smiles and sincere laughter. We talked about my world and what they were doing. Sometimes they drove for longer than the amount of time that we spent together. It was another illustration of them, of their warmth towards others, of their love. At some point, I must have joked that I would come down and visit and bring my laundry, too, since the University of Wyoming in Laramie isn’t far from Longmont, Colorado. But my joke quickly turned into a congenial go-ahead with those two as they gave me an open welcome into their home. And, so, I visited through college, except now I would sit with them at the table, a burgeoning adult, with their thermos coffee carafe keeping the dark liquid warm and close, and we would talk about the world while my laundry tumbled in the basement. I would beg for stories of their youth and the people who were in it then who were no longer with us. I would drink my coffee doctored with cream and sugar, just as I had learned how to drink it from my grandfather’s lap, and indulged in their company, laughter, and tales.
It was during this time that Aunt Judy helped nourish my love of the past and stories of the people in it. I didn’t have many items of my grandma’s, and Aunt Judy went through her photos and gave me some old black and white pictures of my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my dad. It was invaluable to me then, and a treasure to me now. She gifted me with a yellow porcelain fruit bowl of my Great Grandma Jesse Kenan’s and an old recipe book of my Grandma Lois’s with explicit instructions, as only Aunt Judy could impose, that I had to use the items, not just put them on a shelf to look at them. Later, when I began to seek the past through genealogy, she sent me an encouraging email regarding my use of evidence to link people which meant so much considering she was a pro at genealogy.
After I was married, I brought my husband Tye and our children to Longmont to meet them. It was spring and their backyard was blooming. We adults sat on the porch around a table, drinking coffee, and watched the children play in the sandbox made for their grandchildren. My children dug with shovels and created with pails. We talked of locust and aspen trees, the weather, and events in the news. Uncle George and Aunt Judy told stories about their grandchildren, pride etched deeply in their voices and faces. We laughed as we watched a new generation of children who interrupted our conversation, running through to the bathroom, requesting drinks, or just checking to see if we were still paying attention to them in the revolving egocentric way of children. I was cognizant of the shift of my position from child to adult in that moment, a transitional earmarked memory I still possess.
Both Uncle George and Aunt Judy are gone now. Aunt Judy passing on the 27th of this March, and Uncle George gone now since the 21st of July in 2013. I find comfort in knowing that they are together again, but the world is stiller without them here, quieter without their insights and commentaries. But, their acts of kindness have filled me with belonging, continuance, and the way the past and presence settle and circle through us, creating connections through time. They have passed on the ability to find joy in what is around you and to nurture and revere those slices of time where you do find yourself surrounded by loved ones. Their generosity shaped me throughout my life, and when I think of them, a warmth wraps me. I approach the honorific status of being the oldest generation now, and, with the wisdom gained from the adults in my life regarding how gathering together to share conversation and stories cultivates the beauty and strength of relationships and connections, I hope to pass to this wisdom on to my children and future grandchildren.