The oldest person I had ever known—that is my childhood recollection of my great-grandmother, Gertrude Anna Kurtz. She lived with my grandparents in Flagstaff, Arizona. It amazed me that anyone could live to be so old. I used to sneak in to look at her as she slept and wonder what it would be like to know that many years.
Every year in July, on Grandma Kurtz’s birthday, our family would gather to celebrate. These reunions gave each branch of the family a chance to pay homage to this aging matriarch of our clan as well as an opportunity to take notice of new family members gained through marriage or birth. It was a time to renew kinship, to keep track of each other’s lives. The ties of extended family ran deep, looping around grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Each belonged to a specific unit of parents and siblings, yet each also recognized a bond to the group as a whole.
Some of the men gathered to play horseshoes, sending sounds of steel-on-steel sharpness through the air, intermingled with dusty thuds. Others sat in lawn chairs under clumps of scrawny pine trees, seeking shade from the summer sun. They discussed crops, weather, and family news. A few stood about silently, hands deep in pockets, feeling awkward surrounded by so much kin.
Meanwhile, the women negotiated through a distinct though unspoken hierarchy as they prepared the chief focus of these gatherings—the food. Long folding tables were covered with casseroles, salads, and pies. There was often a subtle hint of competition as they eyed one another’s contributions to the meal, each trying to outdo their creations of the year before. They guarded their wares with amiable fierceness from the poking fingers of children who inevitably planned intricate schemes to sneak slivers of ham or pieces of pie before the feast began.
Year after year those gatherings took place, offering a sense of continuity to us all. Yet it was not until I was much older that the familiar rhythm became clear. I left home in my youth and did not return for many years. When I came back, it was to attend the reunion that marked my Grandma Kurtz’s one-hundredth birthday.
Individual relatives had changed, grown older, or lost their hair. A few new faces had appeared, and others were absent. Yet the feeling of belonging to the group was the same. However, this time I was one of the mothers preparing the food while my sons were among the pie-snitchers.
For the first time I was able to see my cherished great-grandmother as a whole person rather than as an ancient curiosity. There she was, surrounded by five generations of friends and kin—evidence of a life fully lived.
As a child I thought I would never be as old as my Grandma Kurtz, and it was inconceivable to me that she had ever been as young as I. Yet over the years I had heard stories of her adventures during growing-up years, and in her eyes I could see sparkling glimpses of myself-to-come.
Surely there had been a time when this dear, bent figure had been a pigtailed girl and a shy young bride. Finally I could imagine her as a toddler’s mother—even knowing that one of her toddlers was my own grandmother.
Over the years, the pattern of life’s seasons has flowed together for me. The continuity of kinfolk is reassuring. In their lives I see roles that I might play during various stages in my own life. While some choices I make may result in different outcomes than those harvested by my relatives, in reality we are more alike than not. We are all part of the magically woven tapestry called family.