Walla Walla is a fairly young city. Most western towns are. Its adolescence came in the early twentieth century. Many of the families who immigrated here in those days are still present, having multiplied and intermarried over the last hundred years to create a spider web of relationships. Family reunions can number in the hundreds of people who all live close by and grew up together.
I didn’t grow up in that kind of family. My folks left rural Kansas as soon as they could, and summer visits in their home town did not produce the lasting friendships that many cousins have. Ours was an archetypical nuclear family of dad, mom, and three kids – me and my two sisters.
I’m a little older than they are. Enough older that I paid almost no attention to them when we were growing up. It wasn’t just that they were younger. They were girls. Many years have passed. One sister went away to college, and, except for short visits, never came back. Hawaii became her home, and there she married and raised a family. I went the other way to NYC, and seldom returned to our home state. Getting together for three of us meant occasional reunions at the Florida retirement home of our parents, which were always enjoyable, but that is not what his article is about.
After forty years on Oahu, my Hawaii based sister moved to Walla Walla a couple of years ago. She lives within walking distance of our house. It has been an enormous blessing. With plenty of time on our hands, we have come to know each other in new ways, some surprisingly so, that have filled in many gaps, gaps I didn’t even know existed. It turns out that I really like her a lot. She is an amazing and very talented woman, and it doesn’t hurt that she and my wife are great buddies. Moreover, we have got to know our parents in new ways as well, and that has been very surprising.
It turns out that although raised in the same household by the same mother and father, we had quite different parents. Part of it, I’m sure, had to do with how girls and boys are treated differently. Some had to do with my status as the eldest. Some had to do with our parents’ changing economic fortunes that provided additional opportunities to my sisters. What all of this means is that the stories we tell each other about what it was like growing up, and what our parents were like, are often quite different. Those differences continued into our adult experiences of our parents as they aged, including how we experienced their deaths and the grieving that followed. Mom and dad, it turns out, were far more complex than either of us imagined, and that new complexity has made them ever more interesting persons.
Many of the people we know seem to enjoy telling stories of the family disfunction they had to endure growing up – the darker the better. Maybe because it’s the stuff of novels and movies. I don’t know. Those are not our stories. With few exceptions, and in spite of all the normal mishaps and tragedies of daily life, ours was a reasonably healthy family that had more good times than bad, and got through the bad with affection and good humor. As my sister and I talk, I’m learning, and I’m sure she is too, about those times in ways that open doors and shine new light on things that were known to one of us but not the other, as well as shared events that were experienced through very different eyes. It’s good to discover old events taking on new life that way.