Visiting our far-flung families

One thing you’ve got to appreciate (if not always love) about family is how they can push you outside your comfort zone. It could be something as mundane as changing a diaper for the first time to traveling great distances for a wedding or a funeral.

Over the past month, I’ve traveled over 5,000 miles in what you might call the “service of family.” I found myself preparing a vat of cream of asparagus soup for 125 members of the Pahrump, Nevada Elks Lodge, and I watched my father-in-law clean four wild turkeys brought down by Uncle Floyd in Coatopa, Alabama. I shopped for prom dresses for our daughter in Joplin, Missouri and I skied with my brother (a Stowe, Vt. local) at Beaver Creek.

Somewhere in between all that, we maintained all the regular business of jobs, bills and school. And man, am I glad to be home! Even so, the experience of getting to see where my wife grew up in rural Alabama was truly memorable. Her dad’s home has evolved into a compound, with various family members inhabiting trailers (or, as we were instructed to call them, “double wides”) around the property. An enormous workshop contained the collected artifacts of a generation or more, and a golf cart and ATV provided endless amusement for the kids.

As a Yankee, a suburb-slicker who grew up on Long Island, seeing a place like this – complete with a front-end loader in the driveway – was extraordinary. In the three days we were there, there wasn’t nearly enough time to explore this whole world, but we did our best. Max, my father-in-law, is a man of few words, but he’d occasionally say “Come look at this” and I’d follow. One time it was a 5,000-pound safe in his closet, which he told me he bought locked for $50. A career welder, he’d cut it open, re-jiggered the combination and welded it back together. The next day, he suggested I join him to clean the turkeys his brother had shot.

If this was a test, I passed it by not shrieking and running away when he sliced into the birds. I’m no hunter, but I’m not a vegetarian, either, so I figured a little butchering lesson couldn’t hurt.

Only a week before, I watched my dad be installed as “Exalted Ruler” at the Elks Lodge in Pahrump – a funky little town about an hour west of Vegas. Since my older brother is a chef, he was ordered to prepare the meal and I served as apprentice – something I hadn’t done with Pat since I was a teenager and spent summers with him in Vermont. It’s hard to think of a less likely place for either of us to have been without the connection to our dad. But it’s the kind of thing you do for family – and dad was in his glory.

It’s not news that families are mostly comprised of insane people, some of whom are impossible to get along with. That’s why we try to limit the exposure: Two or three days is plenty of time to pay a visit, get an idea of what’s going on and move along before anything untoward happens. A shorter visit also has the beneficial effect of exposing the good stuff while deferring the rest; or, at least, allocating it to those closer family members who must deal with the madness on a regular basis.

Mostly, though, it’s all good. And while there was a time not too long ago that I wouldn’t have had any idea how to handle a dead wild turkey, I now feel I know enough about the process to skip it all and head to the grocery store. But it’s the experience that matters – and that’s something I couldn’t have gotten any other place outside my family.





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