Friday, November 23, 2012

Celebrating Connections: Far Flung Family

There I was, standing at the door leading into a room where a crowd had already gathered. The celebration was in full gear with balloons edging the buffet table and cake on display to tempt the littlest guests to reach out and sample. People were chatting, slapping each other on the back, and leaning in for hugs with whispered greetings.

I was at my aunt's 75th birthday party. But, who the heck were all these people?

Let's be honest. If you come from a family of more than a handful of relatives, by the time everyone grows up  you tend to lose track of their every day life. Right? I'm not alone here, am I?

In the case of my mother's family, it is easy to get lost in the crowd and wonder if you've ended up at WalMart on Black Friday, swimming through a crowd of faces with only a few that leap out as familiar. It's all a matter of mathematics. In the family of GV and Nina Welch:
  • My mom was one of 7 children
  • I am one of 35 grandchildren (granted 9 of those are from my immediate family!)
  • Connor is one of 58 great grandchildren
  • There are 38 great-great grandchildren (with another on the way)
Whew! How could I possibly keep track of so many people?!

But, unlike sauntering into a corporate networking event or Hollywood post-party for the Oscar's, in this setting all I had to do was pick a person out of the crowd and dive in. "Hi, I'm Maureen, Jackie's daughter. Help me remember where you fit in the family tree..."

Yep, in this magical place once we got past the awkward horror of not recognizing a second cousin from four states away who had emerged from those gawky teen years when you actually grow into your teeth, we were hugging and swapping stories like...well, like family!

In some cases, we aren't just family, we are kindred spirits whose laughter sounds eerily similar or whose eye color matches through some sort of imperceptible genetic cloning. With many we are friends. We share a common history as well as common interests outside of family festivities. That's when it becomes fun to have a huge family sprawling out from roots that run deep. Who knew that you might actually enjoy these people that fate and heredity banded you to?

Since it's the time of year for giving thanks and really meaning it, I feel compelled to share how grateful I am for this big, bawdy family of mine. Many are still mysteries, but over time I hope to learn more about their stories and how they intertwine with my own. That, my friends, is the power of don't really feel their awesome strength until you most need the support. Or, the hug. Or, the slap on the back. Or, in the case of that one cousin, whom shall remain nameless, the tap on the shoulder from behind that you didn't see coming (let's be honest, boys will be boys, even when they are old enough to know better!).

Raise a glass, people. Here's to that goofy bunch of people in the other room. They are my family. And, I sure do love them. Cheers (for my English relatives)! Slainte (for my Irish relatives)!

Note: Here are a few snapshots from Aunt Kathie's 75th birthday party...with family arriving from near and far!

The Welch siblings and spouses -- my aunts and uncles
Aunt Kathie being swarmed by the three youngest cousins in the Fitzgerald Family -- Connor, Ryleigh, and Reagan

Duane McDonald with his beautiful family, Jamie, Crystal, and first grandchild

Aunt Pat with Tricia, Mikayla, and Skylar

Aunt Judy with son Kevin Welch

Cousin Richard McDonald, showing his softer side holding those balloons for the kids

Cousin Sandy's youngest two children, Jahan and Shannon, opening the scrapbook of poems and letters their mom wrote to cousin Laura Sharp before her death when the kids were very young.
Cousins Laura, Shannon, and Jahan
Cousin Nickey with her husband, Jimmy, and one of her darling sons

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Short Goodbye

When I close my eyes I can see it perfectly. The sun shooting diamond-bright sparkles off the water. The lake softly swaying like a teenage girl at prom. My friend Michelle's boat held captive in that wake moving of its own accord as we babbled away the afternoon as only a group of people in their early 20s can...mindlessly...confidently. It was in the midst of this misty memory that I first met Joe Faber. He screamed into the middle of my daydream at full throttle. Twisting his body at just the right moment and sending a spray of lake water toward our bikini clad gaggle of girls on the boat.

Joe pulled up that day on his tricked-out jet ski of the era...not the contemporary version that invites middle aged moms like me to hop on and ride...the original...requiring balance and gusto to stay standing while rocketing over waves. I knew right away that we'd become fast friends. Not because he drove like a bat out of hell, but because once he'd tethered his jet ski to the back of the boat he hopped aboard carrying a six pack of beer that he'd procured across the lake at the only liquor store open on Sunday in our region. That was Joe...leave nothing to chance, make a plan and carry it out, and do it while moving forward as fast as possible with a grin on his face.

Eventually even Joe moved to the seated version of personal watercraft, but still insisted on catching air!

This week Joe's ride came to an end. Far too soon. Far too abruptly. My friend died after committing himself fully to the task of winning the most important race of his life -- the battle with cancer.

Today I'm left with a pile of photos and a mind filled with memories...from goofy to tear-filled to tender. We were friends. We were polar opposites. We shared a majority of our lives with common friends, interwoven stories, and a deep respect for the uniqueness that made us each who we are.

It was over one of those summers in the early 90's, filled with glory days and endless nights, that Joe finally cranked up the nerve to put his long-suffering heart on the line and win the girl. He and my dear friend and roommate, Lynn, made a perfect pair. Neither ever thought they were going fast enough, whether on one of those god forsaken jet skis, a boat, a plane, a motorcycle, or just in life. While that same jet ski that Joe seemed to master effortlessly was dragging me around the shallows of Lake Michigan showing the world the reality that I couldn't maneuver the throttle AND hop up and balance, Lynn was learning to make a hard turn and shoot a rooster tail of water all over me. I was destined to sit on the shore and watch as my two friends zoomed off into the sunset edging each other on and complimenting one another perfectly. It was a thing of beauty.

Joe never lost that glimmer in his eye when he looked at Lynn. It was as if he was always surprised that this incredible woman really belonged to him. That wonder and passion served him well over the years as their marriage hit the bumps and ruts along the road of life at mach speed. Together they made a family with Kyle and Megan...and several dogs along the way who were always treated as true members of their brood.

When Kyle was born, he fit into their lives with the same need for speed. To this day I don't think he knows what it's like to coast. In a few years he'll be the same age his daddy was when I met him...I don't doubt that he'll have a similar swagger. He will find his way and become his own man because he had a great model for his first 15 years...I don't expect him to be a replica of Joe but I imagine I'll always see a bit of his dad in that killer smile as he rockets off into whatever his future holds.

I don't think anything could have prepared Joe for the knee knocking joy coupled with gut twisting fear of raising a daughter. He and Megan were inseparable, especially during her first few years of life. Joe was home with her while Lynn worked a full time job. Picture Joe with his legendary Jeep Wrangler and his precious daughter, him teaching her how to find her way around the engine with a socket wrench and a smile.  Today she effortlessly transitions between motor sports and her dad's garage and the glamour-filled  world of your average 6th grade girl. A rare gem in a world filled with faux personalities, Megan is destined to break all the rules society has yoked on women and do it with audacity and style. She is such a magical blend of her daddy and mom.

Joe loved the speed and peace of flying his own plane...especially with his beloved co-pilot Lynn.

It was during this time at home with Megan that Joe conceived of his dream job and started the process of making that dream a reality. How many of us have found a way to transfer our passion into a job that we love? Joe founded Midwest Motorsports because he knew that there were other people out there who wanted to push the throttle farther...and he wanted to help them make their dreams come true.

The snapshot of a life well-lived is never really enough for those left behind. The glimmer of passion that you capture in a moments time can't do justice to the complexity of a life that was not perfect, but perfectly lived for that one man.

Joe was a quiet man who forged his ideas carefully and then defended them with a stubbornness that could surprise me every time. He was raised with a bible in his hands and could quote the scripture without a second thought, making his journey toward Catholicism one of the most well thought out I've ever witnessed. He challenged every aspect and turned it inside out before acknowledging or accepting.

After his first jump out of a perfectly good airplane...following Lynn's lead!

Today begins a new journey for Joe's family. One through uncharted waters. I firmly believe they will remain buoyed by his smile and their memories. I too will cling to the frayed edges of these memories that serve to tell the story of a man who was the mechanic of his own journey. He lived his life true to his word. Our goodbye was cut short, but our friendship will span the divide. Thank you, Joe, for sharing your ride with me.

RIP, friend.