In May, my Aunt Anna died at 108 years of age. That’s a tidy sum of years to accumulate. She set a record in our family, maybe in the whole county, for all I know. Anna, as I’m sure I’ve already told you, became a moving force in our family right from the beginning. She went to school at the age of 4 because her older sister, Clara, who was old enough to start first grade, was afraid to go alone. In family lore, that was the beginning of Anna’s responsibility for all of us.
Throughout more than a century, she governed, gave, recorded, remembered, choreographed, persevered, and called to account. I remember standing in her kitchen out at the farm, when she’d listened to me expounding about something or other and she said, “Patricia, what DO you believe?” She’d already heard what I didn’t believe and what I thought about all kinds of things that troubled her soul and sense of righteousness, and now she asked what no one else had the nerve to ask.
That was her job in our family, evidently; to ‘walk into the lions den,’ as my mother used to call it when a person of courage dared speak out.
On Memorial Weekend, Anna managed to choreograph one last family reunion, and she got all of us to go to church as well. We did this to honor her and the memory of all she had stood for over a hundred years. That day that she called me out, I’d also asked her what she believed, and in answer she recited the Apostles Creed to me. Having not grown up in the Lutheran faith, I didn’t know it.
At her memorial service the attendees recited those same words that she had lived by for over a century of time. “I believe in….” I looked around the room as the cousins and the cousin’s kids and the cousin’s friends and assembled family read the words.
“Did they really believe this?” I wondered, heretic that I am. “Did they have it memorized like Aunt Anna did?” I mused, or were they still having to read it from the page — even the preacher was reading, I supposed, so that he didn’t falter or make a mistake. For good or for bad, believers and non-believers, heroes and hellions, we stood together one last time — for Anna.
Long before she left, the matriarchal mantle fell on the shoulders of my sister and me — it evidently takes both of us to do what Anna did. Jess keeps the family connected with dates and addresses. I take pictures and record the stories, although Anna didn’t tell many stories — you had to pry things out of her. I always wanted to hear ‘the good stuff,’ the ‘real stories’ of conflict and funny mistakes, and not-so-funny reality, while Anna had been taught to keep quiet about anything controversial. “If you can’t say something good then say nothing at all,” cautioned Grandma Schubert, Anna’s mother.
There are 18 Schubert cousins still living — offspring of the original nine Schubert siblings: Clara, Anna, Bertha, Albert, Erna, Henry, Martha, Frieda and Arthur. You know that if Anna was 108, the cousins are getting up there in years, too; ranging in age from 55 to 90, there’s Phyllis, Johnny, Glenn, James, Patricia, Janice, Georgia, Keith, Mark, Phyllis II, Will, Jessica, Gary, Tim, Alan, Kent, and the two Beckys.
Eleven of us were present at Anna’s memorial service, coming from as near as Ramona and as far away as Colorado, Texas, and California. Some of my cousins hadn’t seen each other in fifty years — can you imagine? Do we really know each other? No! How could we? I’ve seen my cousin Mark, who used to live in Hawaii and now lives in Waco, maybe half a dozen times in his whole life, and yet there is a way that I know him. He stands before me with his youngest child, Alanna. There are ways that Mark’s face is as familiar to me as my own. He has his mother’s talent for music and his father’s gap-toothed smile. I don’t know anything about this man, really — whether he likes mashed potatoes, pays his bills on time, or flosses regularly; but none of that really matters. My heart is as open as my arms and I embrace him, whoever and whatever he is, whatever and whomever he loves, he is mine and I cherish him for who he is and who he stands in place of, in this family. It’s all rather miraculous, fairy dust. In fact, I’m startled by the intimacy of the moment with this stranger, who is known, mostly, by his heritage. That’s the gift we give, as family.
Long ago, whenever we saw our relatives, whether it was once a week or once a year, we were expected to look them in the eye and kiss them smack on the lips. I hated that when I was a kid because Grandpa Schubert chewed tobacco and always had some tobacco juice seeping from the corner of his mouth, down through the creases of his face; but I did it. I’m still slightly startled that the custom continues — when my cousin’s say hello and goodbye. No California kissing into the air will really do. No just getting lipstick on the cheek. We’re like monkeys in the forest cementing our blood bond.
Eleven Schubert cousins had their picture taken. We’re together for this moment in time, and who knows when we’ll see each other again? We are the embodiment of our ancestors, people many of us didn’t even know, all of us genetically coded, with the grace, the music, the taste, the artistic skills, the stubbornness, the flightiness, the build, the fears and desires of generations. We touch each other. It is almost reverently that we look each other in the eye, kiss, and say goodbye on another day in the country.