With that, they flew to Australia.
We had our first visit from family: Great Aunt Lorna, Great Uncle Herb and their son Dave came for several days with us in Newcastle. They flew back to Colorado last weekend, in time for Lorna to make it to bridge club–as if a jaunt through Australia is perfectly routine. And we are here at home, just the three of us again.
What an incredible gift, to have had them with us here. I’m trying to dwell on that, instead of on the vacuum of loneliness that followed their visit. The Herbalys are never far from my mind. They are our most faithful relatives, having popped up in our lives with cheery regularity despite our never having lived in the same place. It is their history, in part the story of my father’s father’s shattered Hungarian immigrant family, that I am most aware of, even though I know only fragments. Most of those facts have come from knowing Herb and Lorna and seeing them draw the next generation of family back together after decades of estrangement. And now they have visited our small foothold in this unexpected place, blessing us with their presence despite the odds.
Lorna came through the door bearing handmade soap from one of the found cousins, which has inspired much independent handwashing in the toddler camp. She also came, as per habit, bearing stories. Herb is a quiet man, a gentle, slow-moving fellow who lets Lorna, his wife of 62 years, do the talking. When he does speak, he utters poignant one-liners and then falls quiet. Lorna is a fount of family events and friends remembered. She keeps up their stories and those of their extended family, some familiar, some new. Dates. Births. Illnesses. Deaths. Moves. Graduations. Weddings. I’ve never met most of the people in the stories, but they are familiar friends by now, the constellation of beloved people who have been connected to the Herbalys and each other through Lorna’s unfailing narrative.
The first day, Lorna reminded me of something that I had forgotten the details of and am grateful to have recovered: a year ago when Ace came to Newcastle for an interview and we debated moving to the other end of the Earth, I said, “Nobody will come see us there.” He answered, “Dave will.” And I took a little comfort. It’s true: Dave has been good for a visit just about everywhere we or my parents have lived in the past decade. When we decided to move here, he started planning a trip. He mentioned it to his parents, who decided to come again, their fourth trip here in their long and highly mobile life together. Here they sat, 92 and nearly 90, perched on our couch, drinking Australian instant coffee and a glass of wine, as if they always drop in for a Sunday visit.
When Ace and I married, the Herbalys filled the family section on my side. Four years later, they came to Montana again for my sister’s wedding, anchoring our side of the photos with their open smiles. Last September, two days before I moved to Australia, we met again in Minnesota to celebrate my brother’s marriage. Lorna warms to the story, “Wasn’t that the most pleasant afternoon? They were both so relaxed, so utterly happy. You could tell they are just perfect for each other.” They love a good wedding. They love a good love story. They are a good love story.
Saturday, we picnicked by the ocean, and I watched Herb and Lorna slowly tread the walking path adjacent to Bar Beach. I stayed at the table to pack up while they went to see if they could spot the rest of the crew playing in the waves. My eyes burned to see them, hand in hand, shuffling lightly northward with the beach goers flowing around them. They have come so far together. They came this far because we are family.
Herb and Lorna are models for me, of the flexibility sometimes required to make a life together, of bearing grief and illness with grace. Their ability to “swing with the tide,” as Lorna puts it, is the stuff of family legend. Since they found each other on the windswept plains of Wyoming in search of petroleum (Herb) and adventure (Lorna) in 1950, they have been each other’s best company–at home, at work, through a dozen moves, and the sadness of seeing most of their family and friends suffer and die before them. They still go to the office every day. They keep roaming the planet because they can, because they love the freedom of being on the way somewhere together. They have also given me models of narrative: Lorna’s expressions and transitions, summing up events with the ultimate segue: “with that, we _______.” Herb’s arching sense of their saga.
Every now and then, Herb will pipe up in his low, resonant voice, and add a snatch of detail or narrative thrust. At our first dinner, almost exactly 68 years later, he revisited the sinking of his boat in the Rhine during WWII. Sometimes he reverts to history, Patton’s push to be first over the Rhine that forced his unit out on to the river, needlessly exposed to enemy fire in open boats. This time, he simply reached for the mythic:
“You know about Lorelei? Luring the Rhine boatmen to their destruction on the rocks? That’s how it happened to us.”
I know the rest of the story, but I want to hear it again. His plunge to the frigid depths, his brush with death and God. How he lost his pack and gun and helmet and rose to the surface, and thanks to the Glenwood School for Boys, he knew how to swim. I want my daughter to hear it even though she’s too small to grasp it. I want to hear it for myself, how he traces the beginning and the middle, and nearly up to the end of what he counts to be his incredibly fortunate life. Here in the early stages of my own adult life, I need a witness, a reminder, that the flow of my own story will follow an arc I might not recognize until it is complete. How things that seem inexplicable, insignificant, will rise in the rear-view to be markers for what was to come.
Easter Sunday they sat at our table for Herb’s 92nd birthday dinner. It was such a delight to have them here, to feed them, to gaze at them—these people who knew my grandparents and parents in the years before I was born, who know where I am from better in some ways than I do–to listen to the old stories and take each other in. The slow ease of a Sunday paper. Cake batter on a wooden spoon. A bowl of hot soup. The rise and fall of story.
When the roast finally came out of the oven, we ate the same lamb, the same mashed potatoes and greens. Ace asked the girl,”What is your favorite part of dinner?” She answered, “The people who are here.” It was far past her bedtime, and she barely held on for cake, but it was chocolate so she did, and we sang. Herb, who sometimes says he has seen too many birthdays, still blew out his candle and took seconds on the cake and Ace’s homemade coconut ice cream.
Monday we drove up the Hunter to the wineries, as we have driven together around Denver, up into the Rockies in Herb’s back seat on visits I remember from the mid-1980s up to just a few years ago. We took in the airy gum trees, the grape vines, the blue hills. A giant kookaburra statue in Kurri Kurri. A beautiful lunch and a landscape seen together, four generations of us.
A couple of photos of the day:
After visiting us, the Herbalys took a coastal drive to Adelaide followed by a train ride on the Ghan to Darwin. The last day they were with us, as they walked to the door, Herb said, “We really love your family.” Oh, do we know it. We hugged a gentle hug. I blinked back tears. We kissed cheeks. I leaned into the car to embrace Lorna one more time. This could be the last time I ever see them, I thought, and not for the first time. Ace held me, and we wrapped ourselves around our girl–our present, our future–and I let myself cry. As we turned to go back into the house, the Herbalys zipped past in the other direction, waving merrily as they went. Just when we thought we’d seen the last of them, there they were again.