Sunday, July 29, 2018

Strangers to Family

A year ago (2017) I dialed a number on my phone. I was calling a stranger. Someone I didn’t know and had never met. My dad’s oldest sister, Aunt Ellen, had given me the number and encouraged me to contact my great uncle in Homer, Alaska. He was the last living sibling of my grandfather. 

So here I was…standing out on our bluff in Kenai, Alaska, hoping the distant cell tower would connect my call to Homer.  Eventually a quiet, gentle voice answered.  I began to explain to him how I was his great niece, daughter of Gary Enzminger, his nephew, and that I’d like to meet him.  There was a bit of a silent pause until he asked me to explain myself again. I understood…this was an unusual phone call from a stranger, claiming to be family. He was reluctant, and I didn’t blame him. So I began to talk about my dad and all his siblings, which he knew well. These memories made him laugh and after a few more pauses in the conversation, I realized the silence was not about lack of words, but deep emotions.  We decided to meet at a coffee shop, and I described myself to him so he would be able to recognize me.  He returned the favor by simply saying, “I’ll be the old guy.”

I grew more excited to meet him as the day of our meeting approached.  Walking into the local coffee shop in the quaint town of Homer, I found myself alone.  No one was there except the girl behind the counter eager to take my drink order. After I ordered my chai tea, I sat at a table, thinking about what I would say when I made eye contact with my great uncle.  Would he look like my grandpa or my dad?  I’ve only seen pictures of my grandpa; he died before I was born. Being the only one in the coffee shop, there would be no problem identifying him. 

My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a car door closing and soon a tall older man walked through the doorway.  The girl behind the counter said, “Hi Elmer!”  He scanned the nearly empty room and said, “I was told to meet a blonde here!” There he was, with the same humor as my dad. I got up to greet him and said, “Well, I guess that must be me then.”  Instead of sitting across the table from me, my grandpa’s youngest brother sat right next to me.  I looked at him, wishing he could take me back in time to the “good old days” of living in North Dakota with his eight siblings. I asked him questions about my grandpa, whom he shared his birthday with.  His words were slow and few, stopping mid-sentence to hold back heartfelt tears the memories brought to the surface. 

He’d look at me and chuckled as if he was surprised by his emotions. 
However, I had a feeling those sweet tears have been 
his companion for a long time. 

His soft, big heart was clearly evident; our connection was instant.  

In just a few short minutes, he was no longer a stranger to me nor a distant blood relative, but family.  As I talked about my dad, whom Elmer had not seen since my grandmother’s funeral in 1976, he would say, “Oh, I would love to see him.” And I responded… “I haven’t been able to get him up to Alaska in 20 years, but maybe you could.” 

I arrived in Homer looking for a stranger 
and left town with new found family.

Fast forward to this summer (2018): my dad faced his anxiety with flying and landed in Alaska. Actually the plane went to land on the runway but due to strong winds the captain decided to take off again right before landing and circle around to try landing a second time. All of us on the plane cheered when it finally landed on the second attempt. So proud of my dad for doing something hard for him so that he could see his uncle one more time.

As we drove to Uncle Elmer's home nestled in the hills of Homer, overlooking the beautiful mountain range and Homer spit, I couldn’t wait to see my dad and my great uncle’s first sight of each other.  Aunt Karen welcomed us in and pointed to the living room.  There Uncle Elmer sat in his chair looking out the front window at the majestic Kachemak Bay.  Even though it had only been a year since I saw him last, he looked a bit more bent over and frail. I came around to the front of his comfy chair and he looked up at me…and there formed a big smile. 

His sweet face was familiar to me again. I reached down and gave him a hug and turned to my mom to re-introduce them.  And just as if time slowed down to savor the moment, my dad walked around to reach out his hand and said, “Hi, Uncle Elmer!”  Standing right next to them, I studied both their faces.  Elmer grasped his nephew’s hand and like I expected... 

those sweet companion tears welcomed themselves onto the scene 
and his frail body began to shake with joy.  

He brought his handkerchief to his mouth, unable to speak, but his silence spoke volumes. His unspoken words from the heart were clear. Too deep to explain with words nor to produce sound. Feelings too meaningful to name with words. I looked at my mom, and she looked at me, both of us with tears in our eyes, understanding the beauty of this reunion. 

We huddled around Elmer as Dad asked him questions about the Enzminger family, days gone by, and stories only remembered by the two of them.  The rest of us observed and listened, honored to be invited back into our family history. While Dad explained stories to the rest of us and catch us up to speed on our family lineage, Elmer would look around the room intently at each of the faces surrounding him, taking it all in, treasuring this unique moment of having distant relatives near. Eventually he would catch me staring at him…we would smile at each other and then he’d wink at me. I know he wanted this moment to never end, and I did too. 

Uncle Elmer is my dad’s connection to his parents, his childhood, and his past. All of which are my heritage and history as well. 

The German language spoken amongst my dad’s family is now non-existent in my generation, and as time goes on, more of my family’s roots and history are being forgotten. 

That is unless I care.  Care about my ancestors who left Germany in search of a better life for their family. Appreciate the sacrifices and hardships of generations before me; the sacrifices I now reap the benefits from. I’ve never had to start from scratch, work the ground to provide for my family, or escape my country for safety. 

Knowing the past brings value to my past
and the people in it because 
their lives played a pivotal role 
in who I am today.

We have so much to lose if we lose our past.

As we drove out of the driveway, Uncle Elmer and Aunt Karen stood in the doorway together, waving good-bye. Once strangers, now forever bonded as family. 

Uncle Elmer with his three great-grandnieces! 
(and his dog Cody)