by Beth J. Drechsel
Yesterday, trekking poles in hand, we hiked through mountain aspens, amber leaves fluttering to the ground. Today, snow flurries drift on an icy wind, flakes landing briefly, then melting, on our wrinkled faces.
This is our season. Our spring and summer is long gone. Autumn will soon be over.
The oldest of us six siblings is 68, the youngest 58. We are in Pagosa Springs, Colorado for a week of remembering our roots and re-establishing our relationships with each other. Some of us see each other every week or a couple of times a year, but this is the largest gathering in thirteen years and the first without our kids and grandkids.
Our homes are spread out over thousands of miles–from Alberta, Canada to Arizona, from Washington to New Mexico where my sister and I live in two small towns just a few miles apart. Our youngest brother—the only one who couldn’t join us–lives in Alaska.
Being together is such a gift. We are making the most of every minute, rediscovering the family we were a part of so long ago, as well as opening our eyes wider to who we have become as adults.
We are focusing on the joy of being together, trying to free ourselves of sibling roles, rivalries, and expectations. We tease; we use our childhood nicknames; we reach out to hug. We giggle over shared memories, clue our spouses in on the family jokes. We talk, talk, talk, and then we talk some more, listening intently to each other, seeking to understand each other’s life experiences, political opinions, and spiritual beliefs.
And when we can’t agree, we strive to give each other grace.
I look into my oldest brother’s face, and I see Pa. I hear Ma’s voice when my sister hollers, “Everybody in the car!” And when my third brother tells a story, I hear the cadence of the Plymouth Brethren, the denomination our missionary parents raised us in.
None of us belongs to that denomination anymore, but our roots grow deep. Looking at old songbooks in a downtown thrift store, one brother comments to me that he misses singing the old hymns. We reminisce about Sunday morning “meeting” and the four-part acapella voices harmonizing as a whole. It’s not that we really want to go back to those long, often boring, church services, we just need to acknowledge that there were achingly beautiful bits from those times.
One afternoon, we go through old photograph slides from the 1950s-1970s of our growing up years on the Navajo Indian Reservation. As long-ago faces and places emerge on the computer screen, memories are resurrected, and we interrupt each other with revelations.
“Yellowhair! He was a child survivor of the Long Walk and over 100-years-old when he lived in the cellar room next to us.”
“Remember standing on scaffolding and painting the dormitories?”
“That’s the guest hogan. People would come on their horses, spend the night, and catch a truck-ride next day into town.”
“Aren’t those the two girls who were swept away by the flash flood?”
“The old school bell! I loved ringing that thing!”
“That’s one of the Navajo preachers at summer camp meeting.”
The three older boys recall coming face to face with a cougar during a hike on the mesa when they were only 11, 10, and 8 years old. My sister and I relive the terror of snakes in the two-room adobe cellar where our family of eight first lived. We all shriek with laughter at the white-taped eyeglasses sitting crookedly on our brother’s face (he was always breaking them). Our noses wrinkle at the stink of dead skunk that another brother brought home because he thought he could save the pelt.
We remember the thrill of rolling down sand-dunes at Rock Canyon, riding the neighbor’s donkeys, playing in the quicksand of Walker Wash, and climbing up ancient hand-and-toe holes on a cliff face. We bounce in the back of the flatbed truck to Sweetwater Trading Post to buy soda pop, and our mouths salivate over Indian fry bread crisping up in hot lard. At night we fall asleep to our mother playing “Ora Pro Nobis” on the piano.
Suddenly we see our father, sporting a flat-top haircut, teaching in one of the classrooms of the two-room schoolhouse. My brother does some quick math: “Pa would have been 37 years old in that photo,” he says.
What? So young? I feel tears on my eyelashes. I blink them back. Some of our own children are older than that! All of us in the room have already lived longer than Ma did and our eldest brother is now only ten years younger than Pa when he died.
How do I grasp the many years behind me? How do I accept the few years left ahead? With every breath I take, time is passing. I cannot ignore my own aging when I look at my siblings; the receding hairlines, the arthritic hands, the wrinkled brow, the limping gait. These five precious people hold the most of my childhood memories. Someday they, too, will be gone.
All week at mealtimes we siblings and our spouses pack in around the table. At each meal, a different person gives the blessing, but each blessing is much the same–praise for God’s beauty and greatness, thanksgiving for the legacy of good and godly parents, and gratitude for this special week together.
This is our time. The seasons are fleeting. Winter is here.
Beth Drechsel is a homemaker and gardener living in Flora Vista, New Mexico. She is happily married to her husband, Paul, and they have two adult sons. She finds joy in her simple life and in her relationships.