Memories: A Hurting and Yet Joyful Heart

My gorgeous and amazing cousin, Suzanne

Hello on a chilly December morning,

It was a bit of a lazy morning to begin with, but as usual, I seem to wake up some during the night and then fall asleep again somewhere around 4:00 a.m. to sleep for a few hours. So this morning it was after 8:00 before my feet hit the floor. It has been a bit of a pulling the loose ends together and then focus for the remainder of the day. I have managed a few emails, reached out to a couple of birthday people, and texted with one of my cousins again. Holidays are such poignant times, emotionally intense for a variety of reasons, and yet a time if we allow that our better angels might take flight and make a small difference for those we come in contact with through our various subjectivities we all manage, often without realizing it.

In my texts with my now eldest sister of my amazing cousins, she noted the pain and how the absence of her elder sister is such a significant part of her holiday psyche this year . . . and rightly so. I am feeling that pain also, but mine, along with a sense of loss is the years lost where we were really not in contact as well as there is not an option for the eldest of my wonderful, beautiful, talented, and profoundly amazing cousins. It has been a week of reminicsing in my own way about them. I have been able to reflect on why their visits to South Sioux City and their grandparent’s house was so important. There are a few pertinent things that continually surface as I think of them. First, the love amongst them was evident. They squabbled to be sure, but each had their own personality (even the twins), and they were allowed to be themselves. What I know now is I think I desired to be their elder brother as much as they longed to have a brother. And yet, most probably, I would have been overwhelmed by them. They were as talented and enjoyable as they were beautiful. Suzanne, to this day, might be the most soft-spoken person I have ever met, but do not let her shy and quiet demeanor or her simple profound beauty lull you into thinking she was not fierce or brilliant. I am sure each of her sisters can tell of a time when she let them know she was the eldest. What I remember most is her sort of ethereal presence in any situation, an almost omnipotent ability to see what was up and what needed to be done. Yet, from my perspective, she was also profoundly private about her life. She was a see-it-all and say-little sort of a person. I think that was part of her beauty and elegance, but on a deeper level it was the way she chose to treat others with a respect and decency that was so typical of her parents.

Kim, the next eldest, had a different beauty to her; she was the one who could dazzle you with her elegance and the next minute take you down in a rough and tumble sort of way that illustrated a total person. She was intelligent, gentle and aware of things that were well beyond the ordinary scope of daily thought. I refer to her as the earth muffin of the family. I think my affinity for her was because she was incredibly honest and kind, a sort of wholesome goodness we could only hope to emulate. Over this past week, my conversations, both through phone and text have brought be a sense of joy and comfort that are too profound for words. I remember one night while visiting their home in Decorah, she and I sat up until the wee hours of the morning listening to Rick Wakeman and the album Journey to the Centre of the Earth. We marveled not only at the music, but at the long-flowing, almost white-blonde hair of this incredible keyboardist who had played with Yes, as he stood in the middle of numerous keyboards surrounding him in the midst of a full orchestra with long flowing white robe with a rather supernatural aura about him. We were mesmerized as we watched and I remember feeling so comfortable and appreciated in their home. If I remember correctly, I might have even hitchhiked up there to spend some time with them. Somewhere I recall that in the recesses of my ancient memories. I remember another time when they were visiting me in Sioux City and we attended a high school basketball game together. People asked me later who my beautiful date to the basketball game was and I simply said, “Not a date, just my cousin.” But boy was I proud to be seen with her.

Then there was Julie and Paula, an immeasurable amount of energy. As identical twins, they were a force with which to be reckoned. They were boundless in their willingness to engage my older brother and me, begging for horsey-back rides until I could have worn holes in the knees of my jeans. Their parents would try to save our backs with breaks, but in no time, they were ready to go again. And yet they were grateful and kind, enjoyable and always ready for a new adventure. They too were beautiful, but this time you had a double-dose. Incredible in probably the only word I could use to describe the sort of third personality the two of them created. It was impossible to not be caught up in their joy for life. I remember as small children they had their own communicative language only they understood. It was fascinating to me listening to and observing the love they had for each other. Years later, as I had just graduated from Dana and was in my first intensive summer Greek program, I was honored to sing in Julie’s wedding. It was one of the most special times singing in my life. In the past week, as we have reconnected, Julie graciously blessed me with a short snippet of my song in their wedding. As I first listened, not sure what she had sent, I heard my voice and wondered, “who was that?” It was a profound thing to hear my own voice from that time. It was even more emotional to remember those connections. To be with Julie and Paula was the only time in my life I have been around twins, but it brings me such joy to think of the two of them. As I have looked at pictures of them this past 10 days, their beautiful personalities still radiate from their pictures and they look two decades younger than the age they are.

Then there is Mary and Martha, they were young enough that I was well out of high school and trying to figure out the life of graduate school and being newly married that I lost track of them and all the family for that matter. While many things could be offered to make excuses for that path, what I now know is I missed out on so much. Martha has reached out my Facebook messenger and what I know is she is living in the vicinity of where her parents retired after Don left his position as the head of the math department at Luther College. I know she has been in places I want to learn so much more about, so I am hoping to catch up more intentionally. I have not heard from Mary yet, but my searching seems to indicate we might have lived in a similar area at one time. There is so much more I could write about each of them, but suffice it to say that there are new stories to create in some distant manner. Our lives have taken their divergent paths, and families have grown older and members of them are no longer here, so tragically and recently, some longer ago, but nonetheless important. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, brothers, sisters: none of us are the same people we were.

In the cases of my cousins (and it seems all of them) they have established families and shown the amazing resilience they must have had to manage six girls in one household in their non-ostantaious house just below the college in Decorah. I remember just simple hospitality and welcoming every time I entered their home. Virginia and Don were beyond gracious and kind. They accepted you where you were without judgment and they were willing to share whatever they had to anyone who came to their door. What I realize as I reflect, they were much like my own grandmother, who I have often referred to as my hero. Even more importantly, I see some of those qualities of graciousness, positivity and acceptance in my cousins, which is not really surprising. What I realize more importantly is how much we have missed out on over the years. The discovery that my eldest beautiful cousin lost her life so tragically is still hard for me to fathom, but more importantly, the failure to reconnect with the rest of this amazing group of cousins would be unconscionable to me at this point. It is not just for me, but for generations of Olsons, Pilgrims, Martins, and beyond. I am quite sure that Don and Virginia did much for my sister Kris, as she would have allowed when she was a freshmen at Luther College. I know they invited her for dinner and probably did what they could to help her that year. For Kris, unfortunately, I think there was little that could have comforted her at this time in her life.

It is always a double-edged sword when a family member leaves this world. I remember watching it again and again when I was a parish pastor. The difficulty of changing dynamics and all of the humanity of families comes to the fore, but at the same time we are pushed to remember our humanity and frailty. That is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. If we allow we can find the goodness in each of us and recall the things that have been the most profound influence in our lives, most often an influence we took for granted, never realizing the goodness and grace we were in the presence of. For me that is all of the Pilgrim daughters, but certainly Suzanne was the model of that for her sisters. In the words of one of her sisters, she was a passionate warrior about justice (and particularly social justice). This is no surprise to me and perhaps why I see such an incredible goodness in her memory. She was kind and gracious, but she was also profoundly tough and resilient. She was also brilliant and fun. She epitomized goodness to me. It is painful and simultaneously joy-filling to remember these things about her. It is also convicting to know that I did not do my part to stay in touch over these years. Again, there are countless excuses for those choices, but the choice to lose touch is a mistake, a mistake that I hope to remedy moving forward. It is not possible to bring anyone or anytime back; I know this all too well, but I can make a different choice moving forward. God is never-ending in his grace and willingness to provide us a second, third chance when it comes to making a change. The words, voices, texts, and pictures from some of my beautiful cousins brings me comfort and hope beyond words. Again, in this season of Advent, the season of the church year I where I find the most meaning, as the candles of hope and peace are lit at this point, I am reminded of those in our families who have left and cling to the belief in a resurrection that this season points toward. Suzanne, forgive me for losing touch with you; forgive me for not making a better choice to stay in touch with all of you. Kim, Julie, Paula, Mary and Martha, thank you for reaching out these past days and reminding me of your incredible love, goodness, and beauty. There is much to share and catch up on. Kris and Bob, we were blessed with so many visits from these amazing ladies. I hope you see from wherever you are that I choose to rekindle that fond memories of Christmas visits, summer visits, Easter visits and move forward with a sense of purpose. Suzanne, I hope you see us all too. I hope you forgive me for losing track of all of you. In the spirit of some music that Kim and I shared, this is from the appropriately named album Fragile by the group Yes, and their induction into the Roll and Roll Hall of Fame. Rick Wakeman, as usual does his keyboard magic. Indeed we are all fragile, but we are resilient and we will hopefully find a joy in each other that provides a sense of memory, of hope and of peace.

I wish you all a sense of hope, comfort, and peace in this blessed season. To my remaining cousins, Kim, Paula, Julie, Mary, and Martha, I love you.

To everyone else, thank you for reading.


Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

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