Sunday, April 11, 2010

Getting to Know You . . .

"Whoa! Dad's been arrested six times!
 Aww, Mom's only been arrested twice."
- Bart Simpson on The Simpsons

I have know my family my entire life.

But how well do I know them? How well do the younger generations know our family's history? Its traditions? Its characters?

We all know Uncle Dick was an Episcopalian priest. We know Uncle Marlow lived a full, happy life - and that it ended all too soon and too sudden. We know that the Wilds' Dance Hall in the Soo was where good kids went to be bad. We all know the black and white genealogy of our family's lineage.

But do the newest generations of Wilds' know the rich tapestry of their family's legends and myths? Do they understand what it means to carry on the memory of a family that is deeply rooted in the history of the Eastern Upper Peninsula?

Marlow's grandson is currently living down state while he attends WMU. To earn extra spending money he has hired on as my "yard boy". In true Wilds' tradition he is a strong, untiring worker - my yard has never looked better this early in the season!

As he works - and I direct - there is plenty of time for converstaion. Most of it centered on family stories. Family history. And I have been amazed at how little he knows of our family - of our family's connection to the rich history of the Upper Peninsula. Of what it means to be able to say he is a part of that history. That he is a part of all those that came before him - that our history has somehow been a factor in molding who he is.

Great Uncle Earlan Wilds once owned the General Store on Sugar Island. A tough, ruggedly handsome, independent soul he was known later in life as either "Patch Eye" or "Crook Hand" - depending on who was telling which of his many colorful stories. I like "Patch Eye" the best. The events that led up to that nickname also made him an even more dashing character than he already was - a U.P. Eryl Flinn.

Great Uncle Earlan was known near and far as a tight wad. Very little went to waste in the back room of his Sugar Island butcher shop. If a customer had a penny he wanted it. How Earlan lost an eye never surprised anyone - family, friend or enemy.

It was a cold, early spring day. the kind of day up north that let the Mail Boat make its rounds up and down the St. Mary's River - but still found ice packs jammed up against the shoreline and in the tiny bays along its route. And that is how it came to past that Earlan, returning from fetching the mail, spied two beer bottles stuck in the ice surrounding the General Store dock.

Not one to pass up the deposit money these bottles represented, Earlan reached down and began to struggle with wrestling the bottles free from their icy shackles.

The first gave way quick and easy. The second proved a harder fight. The more Earlan struggled, it seemed, the harder the ice gripped the bottle. Earlan pulled. He wiggled. He braced himself. And he finally applied enough force to wrestle the bottle free.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. A fact Earlan hadn't braced himself for. The momentum of the bottle in his hand took him quite by surprise. The top of the bottle impacted his eye in such a way as to do permanent damage.

Earlan wore a black eye patch for the rest of his life - much to us younger Wilds' delight. He became a family legend in his own time.

Stories like this define one's sense of the unique nature of each of our families, and of our own places in them. They provide us with inspiration, warnings, and cherished values. These stories never leave us; they reverberate through our lives, guiding our choices in work, friendship and love.

Keeping a family's history alive is critical not only to its memory, but also to its members own emotional survival. Too often the deep stuff of a family - the childhood memories, the hopes and fears, the truest sense of self - goes unexplored. While many families busily outline their family trees they oft forget to include the stories that led to those connections. That allowed those branches to sprout from a single trunk.

As summer approaches we, the members of the extended Wilds' clan, are looking forward to gathering in the Soo. To taking time to reconnect with Aunts and Uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and siblings. To share the stories that make up the legend of our family.

Every family has its myths - its fabulous characters. Do you know your family's stories?

The family . . .
We are a strange little band of characters trudging through life - sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another's desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it all in the same instant. Loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that binds us all together. - Erma Bombeck

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