A Blog of Personal Thoughts
Rocky Mountain Children
I have lots of Rocky Mountain children in the form of nieces and nephews, great-nieces and nephews, and great great nieces and nephews. The most adorable ones are the new ones. This was true when I was a student at the University of Colorado and I had a nephew and a niece. It was true when they had another sister. When I went to college, I left my two older sisters and their families on the East Coast to live half an hour away from my older brother, his wife and family. Then those Colorado children grew up, married, and had their own children. Now it is true once again when there are five more and two on the way. Ella is 19 months old and loves to stare at me. I say she’s taking it all in. Her cousin, Wrenley, who is 17 months old, looks exactly like her mother and she smiles and stares at me. She is taking it all in also.
I imagine they wonder who is this new person in my life? She’s in my house, eating, talking to my parents and grandparents, hugging them. She sounds like them. She laughs the family laugh with the grandparents. These looks are ones they’ll remember in the early recesses of their minds, maybe remember my image but not my name. They’ll remember the family voice and look, but shy away from me when I come back in a year or so. Waylon, three and a half, will remember me better. He had touching departing words that I’ll always remember. “Thanks for playing with me. I will miss you.” I have never had any other child tell me such. He had some other very kind words that made me wish I lived less than a half an hour away.
What is family? When I was little, aunts, uncles, cousins came for the day, a weekend, a few weeks, moved in with us for six months, three years, or anything in between. Grandmothers lived with us. When I was older, I spent summers in Nova Scotia or England living with relatives. They are all a part of who I am.
I had lived in Colorado for a month and come October I wondered when it would ever rain, or even when the sky would cloud over. Thirty years later my sister-in-law and I were driving west out of Denver and I commented how beautiful it was. She said I should move back.
“I can’t. It’s too far from the ocean. I get continental claustrophobia.”
Having grown up in Maine, and as an adult spending winters on the coast in Mexico, she took her hands off the wheel, shook them, and said, “Oh don’t talk to me about the ocean!” Since we were on I-70 and going about 70 miles per hour, I found this alarming, and said, “Connie!”
Fast-forward another twenty or thirty years, and I’m having dinner at a niece’s house, her husband, some children and grandchildren present. In the course of conversation, I commented that I never moved back because Colorado was too sunny. The five adults burst out laughing, one saying, “No one ever says that about Colorado! People move here because it is sunny!” Suddenly I knew I had created a family story that they will tell long after I’m dead—“Remember when Auntie Abigail said Colorado was too sunny!” They’ll all laugh again.
My mother was the oldest of six. When she was on the train to college, she relished the silence. She was a shy person, quiet, controlled, kind, and very witty. My father grew up an only child, the youngest of three sisters who had all died before he was born. A strong family person, he loved all the company in the house and all the family get-togethers. He had a laugh that never ended. When at a business meeting or conference, people surrounded him to listen to his wisdom and enjoy his wit and humor.
These Rocky Mountain children of mine are only a part of my family. I have more nieces and nephews, but only one child myself. I made sure that he spent much time with his cousins—weeks here and there in Colorado, a summer in Vermont with a sister of mine, and time at home in Oregon with my other sister, time with all his cousins.
Family lets us reflect on who we are. I grew up surrounded by my mother’s family. To live with my father’s cousins and their families in Canada and England, let me come closer to know the totality of who I am. Why do I have the memory of family details so well that siblings have called me to ask me about something that happened to them, sometimes even before I was born. I seem to be the keeper of the family memories. My father was like that. Years ago, I visited one of my cousins as he was closing his parents’ house in a London suburb, a house where I had spent a lot of time that was a memory in itself. He was like my father and me, a keeper of family facts and memories from two and three generations ago. Now he is gone too and I am the only keeper.
I feel sorry for my friends who tell me they didn’t know their grandparents or their stories, sometimes even where they had lived. They don’t know when their ancestors arrived in the country or where they were before Kansas, Indiana, Montana, California, or wherever they grew up. How do you know the full story of who you are? How do you know why everyone in your family likes pickles or goes for long hikes?
When I wrote The Night Orion Fell, I remembered my father telling me that his grandfather, a ship’s captain, died at sea. So loved by his crew, they put him in the pickle barrel to preserve his body for the rest of the two-week journey home. I called the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Immediately connected to the museum’s curator, he asked if I was coming to the family reunion in two weeks. I could not change my schedule that quickly, and further, I knew no one in that branch and had already planned a sibling trip back there in September. He mentioned my (second) cousin, Ingrid. I’d never heard of her, but only said I’d lost her phone number. He gave it to me and I called her. She didn’t know I existed or that my grandmother had ever married. She kept saying “Who are you and how are you related?” I felt as if I had been given up for adoption and had finally found my family.
Suddenly I knew there was more to my story of why I loved the ocean, damp rainy climates, and anything near large bodies of water. It wasn’t just that I was born in the old seaport town of Boston, but I had a family history of one hundred fifty years working at sea, generations of seamen. My father’s tidiness wasn’t just his—it came from a history of a ship’s tidiness at sea. Everyone on board better know exactly where a tool was, a needle for a sail, the different sizes for netting needles to repair a torn net, a screwdriver or particular type of hammer. I grew up in a house where nothing was ever misplaced in the workshop or the kitchen or my father’s booming voice announced that something was missing or not where it belonged. Tidiness at sea and in the Calkin household was mandatory. Now I know why my siblings and I keep ordered households, even if some of us live thousands of miles inland.
In ten days, I’ll be in Kansas and get together with three nieces, my sister’s two daughters and one of their daughters. I’m trying to figure out where we can go for an afternoon where we won’t get thrown out for our raucous laughter as we talk, reminisce, and tell family stories.