We always think we know our extended family. For me, it meant a gaggle of cousins, aunts and uncles all converging at one house or another for whatever holiday was in season. My mom is second-oldest of six children, three boys and three girls so I have 14 first cousins, which made for a lot of people and, as far back as my mind cares to remember, a lot of fun. There was the Ranch in Montana, where I learned how to drive an old, blue stick-shift truck to collect a million or so hay bales each summer, and where I followed my grandfather around like a pesky mosquito, anxious to learn everything he would teach me about cattle, fence-fixing, hailstorms, and quiet evenings where the smell of sage mixed with alfalfa became my preferred perfume.
Almost every memory I have of my mother's siblings drifts back to our gatherings in the most positive of ways. There were issues, tragedies, and triumphs, but as children, we neither cared nor worried about them.
I'm grown up now, and a few months ago my mother's brother sent me a message on Facebook telling me he was coming to Alaska in the spring. Facebook is a marvelous tool for family reunions (ahem, Mother). I hadn't talked too much to Uncle G. ("UG" as he calls himself) in years, since my own sister's wedding four or so years ago. But he says he's coming to Alaska to connect with his niece and her family. Rocking cool.
He spent four delightful days in Anchorage; some time was spent with a family friend, some on his own exploring the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, but lots of it was with us. UG and I took a walk down along the Coastal Wildlife Refuge one morning. Unusually quiet for springtime, the marsh was a spicy-smelling collaboration of browns and grays and dark water that sat perfectly still. Only a few sandhill cranes poked their way across the grassy fields, and even the traffic was light.
Over the course of these few days we ate together, talked about life together, drank beer together (let me tell you how cool THAT is). I told him about Wolf. He told me about his youngest, recently married. Bear hovered, always near, asking me later "Is that the joking uncle you told me about?" Yes.
I never really knew my uncle. Not from an adult perspective, anyway. How he struggled to find his way during tumultuous teen years, or how my mother brought him to Seattle from Montana for a fresh start. How the death of my cousin, his son, took him to hell and back during one eternally long week in Anchorage in 1994. I never noticed before how strikingly similar in appearance he and my mother look, or knew that airplanes and their innards are as much a part of his body as the hands that built many of the craft cruising the skies today.
He's in his late 60's. I'm 42. What took me so long?