We signed the papers yesterday. The school sold. The process so far has been simple. Eight months ago, I thought we’d live in that building forever. Now it’s gone. But that’s how it goes, I guess. The trees grow, they flower, fruit hangs heavy from the branches, and then…it hails.
But the fruit lands. And baby seeds plant themselves. And there new trees grow.
John and Lydian keep mentioning the family tree that I painted in the family room downstairs in the school. It was a giant, sprawling, and obnoxious painting that covered the ceiling and the walls, turning corners and stretching up and out through a convoluted space. It took me weeks to complete it. I worked on it while John was in the field working with my dad during wheat harvest one summer. To John and Lydian, it was a representation of our family, but to me, it wasn’t just a painting. Much of the painting was done upside down and so it was painful, arduous work, but the painting was just the final step in a process that involved research and imagination. It was project that I did while I was studying our genealogy. To me, the painting was akin to an imaginary conversation that I had with the spirits of dead relatives as I added them one-by-one to the tree based on their relationships with the ones who came before them and the ones who came after.
I had a pile of paperwork that included things like photos of my Grandma’s lineage and the letters my Grandpa wrote to the family back home while he was fighting in Japan during World War II. On my dad’s side, I learned that though my Grandma was devoutly Catholic, it was very likely that her great grandparents were Jewish (Ivan the Terrible changed a lot of people’s minds about what to believe about God and the afterlife back in the day, apparently). Half of John’s family is completely broken and I have a branch that reflects this fact. The other half of his family is less known and less developed than the extensive branches from my family. As I studied each person and the eccentricities of our family tree during those weeks when I painted our family room walls, I learned about these people one-by-one and how some of them, certain ones specifically, did important things that changed the trajectory of our family forever.
My Grandpa on my mom’s side was an important person in our family. He was drafted during World War II and he
wrote home religiously, but his letters were censored. This censorship by the patriarch of my extended family unit is striking and thought-provoking. When I read the letters, I can see that there’s a code, but that the family couldn’t decipher it because they didn’t have enough information to make sense of it all. Grandpa’s time in the military has made me ardently anti-military. His personal experience with the U.S. government meant that I was raised to be suspicious and prone to thinking for myself, a gift that came to him during his years at war. He bequeathed the gift by accident. When I was a young girl, my mom told me that Grandpa was the only one with a strong enough stomach to clean the latrines on the ships that carried him from the Philippines to Okinawa and Papua New Guinea and back again. She and my Grandpa didn’t get along. He had strong, uncompromising thoughts on certain things that she was against. But my grandpa foresaw the future of healthcare in the U.S. He tried to warn his peers, having seen the world, life, death, and the dirty dregs of corrupt governments, but after the war ended, no one wanted to hear such poopy talk then. There’s a fine line between unbridled optimism and denial. In such cases, hope should be applied carefully and in small, measured doses appropriate to the situation. Grandpa was a realist in a post-world war era that was and still is prone to denial.
Grandpa died of a heart attack in a field one gray and rainy day. My brother and I (5 and 7 years old) sat to the side and watched while my parents tried to revive him with CPR. His death was an important moment in my life. It was then that I became obsessed with medicine and saving lives (for obvious reasons), an interest that’s guided many of the biggest decisions I’ve made in my life. The ghost of Grandpa visited my Grandma after he died. She said that he sat at the end of her bed the morning after his death, sparkling and translucent and they talked for hours “about everything”.
Two generations before him came the strong-willed Germans who made their way across the United States in covered wagons to find land to homestead and make a better life in Nebraska. These were brave souls who could see that they needed to cast off into the unknown in order for their children to have a chance at survival. Many of the pioneers died along the way from the eastern regions to Nebraska, but my ancestors survived. They lived in sod houses and they worried about being killed by the “savages” (Native Americans who were less savage than gun-toting Europeans in the end, but they only know what they’d been told). Heading west for the pioneers was an Epic Decision that was based on a mixture of a bleak past and hopefulness for the future. These were people who’d grown up listening to stories of their grandparents, who traveled across the ocean from France, Germany, and Prussia (depending on which era is referenced) to settle at a place that became known to my family as the “Cabbage Patch” near Buffalo, New York.
Jacob Bauer is the oldest relative I have who was ever photographed. His picture was taken just shortly after the camera was invented. He was born in 1790 and grew up during the French Revolution. My family on my mom’s side lived at that time near where Martin Luther posted his 99 theses on the church door (they became fervent Lutherans). Certainly, it was all the the blood and uncertainty of the French Revolution mixed with the angry tone of the Reformation that motivated them to seek out a new life in a New World. While my ancestors were boarding a boat bound for the United States (the country was still in its infancy), John’s ancestors on his mother’s side were making their way to Russia for similar reasons.
John’s family became part of a group known as the “Germans from Russia”. Salesmen had solicited to John’s family members to “sell them” on the virtues of Russia. Up against the difficulties of their lives in Germany, John’s family decided to move overland, taking their chances on Russia instead of trying to weather a trip across a wide, gaping ocean to an obscure land that was weeks away by sea.
Eventually, years later, John’s family would give up on the unforgiving landscape and customs of Russia and board a small boat bound for the United States.
Perhaps John’s ancestors and mine crossed paths on their way to their new lives Elsewhere.
Dialing back even further, on my father’s side of the family is the Jewish ancestry that I learned about when I found that our last name used to be “Tomicki” before it later became “Kosmicki”. “Tomicki” was a generic name for people of Jewish ancestry before Ivan the Terrible. Many Jews converted to Christianity for fear of their lives during this era, my ancestors included. Growing up, I remember that my Grandma Kosmicki had Virgin Mary memorabilia all over her house. Like the grandpa who was sent to war and censored, the Kosmicki side of my family had learned to keep secrets, a skill that may have been passed down originally for the purposes of survival. Grandma was a difficult woman who was married to an alcoholic (we never talked about it) and prone to depression. She was raised by a stern step-mother who never loved her. Then she gave birth to twin baby girls who both died shortly after they were born. My Grandpa, her husband was an alcoholic. Was it the death of these baby girls that made him take up the bottle? Grandpa spent every day that I knew him with a beer in hand while Grandma sat rocking back and forth in her easy chair, a distant look in her eyes. Often, she’d tune out during conversations and go to The Far Away Place. When she died, in addition to all the Virgin Mary statues, we found newspaper clippings and tiny shards of evidence that she’d loved us after all. Like the Jews who’d pretended to be Catholic, she’d pretended to be cold.
During my undergraduate degree, I shadowed a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Martin, who worked in the forensics department at Lincoln Regional Medical Center in Lincoln, NE. He’d written a book called Man at Millennium and he gave me a copy of it. In it, he talked about how, if we lined up our ancestors shoulder-to-shoulder, one after the other back to the beginning of human history, there would only be about 100 people standing there. Between me and the first human who walked the earth, is only about 100 ancestors. And each one of those ancestors played a significant role in raising the ones who came after, imbibing their offspring with values and beliefs that I carry even to this day without knowing exactly why. My story is a story that stretches back for thousands of years. If I tune into this reality, I’m a concise product of all the struggles, difficulties, beliefs, trials, and tribulations that my family has survived over a millennium. The story is always a warning, even during peaceful times. It’s a tale of ongoing challenges and difficulties that all move in the direction of growth, with occasional, devastating and influential set-backs. If I tune out, and I ignore my humanity and this connection to the past, I’m nothing but a product of all the marketing that big corporations do in a bid for my attention. I can be the person in the La-Z-Boy watching endless hours of mind-numbing crap that has nothing to do with anything real, or I can be who I really am. Who I’m meant to be. But to be the latter is less comfortable and a little scary at times. To be a product of what humanity has learned up to this moment and passed down through history is to untether myself from all the people who shrug off the urgency of now in favor of going to football parties and planning ahead for bullshit-things like Black Friday.
Walking up a hill here in Guanajuato, Mexico a few days ago, the day we found out that someone wanted to buy the old school in Brule, John and Lydian and I talked about how the trajectory of our family will never be the same now. There was a path that we’d imagined following. It was a straight path that involved a lot of comfort mostly and predictability. Lydian would leave home. She’d go to college in Lincoln or Omaha. John and I would live in the school. She’d come home to visit. One day she’d meet someone special. She’d get married. She’d have kids. It went something like that. It was a pleasant, plot-less story like a Lifetime “Original”.
But now, that story has been hijacked. Things are going to be different than what I’d imagined. Likely there will still be marriages and grandbabies and things like that someday, but there will be more to our story. And though I understand John and Lydian when they talk about feeling sad that we’ll never see the family tree in the family room at the school again, I also know that the tree travels with us wherever we go. I’ve spent my time with the tree and the tree with me so I feel less conflicted about leaving it behind. I remember coloring in the coats of arms and carefully painting each person’s astrological sun sign next to their name and thinking about each person one-by-one in turn: their personality, their name, their siblings, where they lived, and how they died. I wondered at times if thinking carefully about each of these people, if wondering about them might summon their spirits from a between-life slumber to answer my questions about who they were and why they did what they did or didn’t do. Did the spirits of my dead ancestors watch me paint the tree? Were they there as I thumbed through the stack of papers to find their story, their history? I imagined them, at times, standing behind me, telling me about themselves or talking with my other dead relatives who were watching me paint as I teetered on the ladder with my tiny brush and palette. What would all these dead relatives, gathered together and standing under the family tree, talk about with each other?
Inevitability, as I painted, I thought often of my own future death, John’s death, and Lydian’s death because each of my ancestors had a death date that represented the end of their story in that particular lifetime. I thought carefully about how I want my life to be more than just a birth date and a death date. For many of my ancestors, their lives amounted to little else than a birthdate followed by days and days of life and then death. They lived. They died. That’s it. But I want my life to be a story worth remembering. I want future generations to be grateful for whatever pioneering I do on their behalf to make the world or my place in it better. This was a thought I had over and over again as I painted that tree in our family room. I was grateful for every ounce of courage my dead ancestors had on behalf of a better future.
The tree seemed static when I painted it, like an ancient and deeply rooted redwood. The relationship between me and the tree is, undeniably present in my life, but it’s flexible and very stretchy. These were my ancestors—the people who raised the people who raised me in this lifetime. The tree and the relationships I have to it are a symbol of something much more complex, amazing, and beautiful. The tree is a symbol of a dynamic and ongoing dialogue of stories that intermingle in surprising ways to shape the present and the future. The stories and their various layers of meaning travel with the three of us wherever we go even as we seem to be leaving it behind. With enough curiosity the dead relatives can be summoned to whisper in my ear from anywhere in the world to tell me about the past and the part they played in the story of the world.
But now, John, Lydian, and I have stared at that tree in the family room long enough. Life is short and death dates come quickly.