July 4 reflections


A cousin and I were talking during yesterday’s family gathering. We happened to be the two oldest males in attendance. We were remembering some of the characters that were part of our family in years past. Our uncles are now dead, but it isn’t hard for us to remember them and their unique characters. Our family has had some people with passionate beliefs, some with quirky personalities, and some who stirred strong reactions in others. He jokingly commented that now that we have become the elders, it is incumbent upon us to keep up the tradition of quirky behaviors and personalities. “I guess it is up to us to be the memorable characters the others talk about.”

Of course, neither of us are able to be anything different than who we already are. On the other hand, we are a couple of characters. My nieces and nephews asked me to sing the silly songs I used to sing to them to their children. They remember the dramatic gestures and camp songs we sang when they were little and they want to pass on the tradition to their children. I’m pretty sure that they think of me as quite a character. I love them dearly and I love singing silly songs, so their request quickly brought the response they wanted.

And there are more than a few quirky personalities who have joined our clan over the years. Our people tend to marry very interesting people and each new personality brings something new to us. Our story continues to unfold with more than a few stories worth telling. Yesterday’s gathering illustrated to us how much we have changed and how much has remained the same over the years.

It isn’t just the people. The place has changed as well. In the midday heat we did what we have always done at this place: we went down to the river to cool off. The water is cold, running straight from the snow melting in the mountains. But the river has changed. The old swimming hole is so shallow you can barely dip under the water. The main channel of the river is running more than a hundred yards to the east of where it used to cut. Old islands have become attached to the permanent shoreline. New islands have formed. At the point of the river where our place sits, willow and cottonwood trees grow quickly, become old and fall. There are always downed branches and several large trees come down each year. Still the river is familiar to us. The sound of the rushing water is part of the charm of this place. The coolness of the river makes summer heat bearable. We have always slept with our windows open here and can’t imagine doing otherwise.

Yesterday would have been my mother’s 100th birthday. Today would have been 110 for another character I once knew. Bill McIntyre lived through two world wars. He was a military journalist in the second one and served in the European theatre. After the war he went into broadcasting and his rough voice was a familiar sound in the southwest corner of North Dakota. He saw his share of trauma in his life and it shaped him. The celebration of Independence Day and his birthday were always connected in the minds of the people who knew him. Bill was the treasurer of one of the first two churches we served after our graduation from seminary. His wit and droll sense of humor endeared him to me even when we were working together to solve problems. Standing alongside him as he sought treatment for his wife’s illnesses was a lesson in how to be a pastor for me. I miss him and I remember him on July 4 every year.

Like the river running by our place, the stream of time continues to flow, carrying with it the changes of generations. Our elders pass on. New births bring new family members. The little ones grow up and meet others and marry. Their lives become interwoven with the family story. That story takes turns and twists that we did not anticipate. And life flows on. Old stories are told and new stories are formed.

Last night’s family celebration wrapped up with traditional African dancing. My brother’s wife was a professional dancer who used to travel with Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda as a cultural ambassador. She has performed around the world for audiences large and small. Now she lives a more quiet life in Western Washington not far from where we live. My brother has brought her to our family home on many previous occasions so we ask for her music and dance. We were not disappointed last night.

As I lay in my bed last night, listening to the sounds of fireworks going off in town, I thought about how different our family’s celebration must be from those of other families gathered for the July 4th celebration. Our story is very different from the stories of other families. Some would have been very surprised at our gathering if they knew what we had been doing. My parents, however, would have loved our gathering. I think we did a good job of honoring their memory. I thought of how much my mother loved to welcome new people into our family and of how accepting she was of our many different quirks and unique personalities. She loved to hold each of the babies and told each one that they were loved. One of her favorite sayings was, “You can’t spoil a child by loving it.” She organized family gatherings, chose dates, invited others, and planned menus for the crowd. She cleaned and cooked and prepared and when the family gathered she enjoyed every minute. A quick look through the photographs of her I selected to share with the family yesterday reveals a lot of her smiling face in the midst of diverse gatherings of people. She loved bringing the family together. It is an honor to be a part of a gathering that remembers such a remarkable woman.

A few decades from now the next generation will have to provide the quirky personalities and unique stories. For new our lives flow on like the river that shapes the land.

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