Wiechmann: Of Kith and Kin

“Those who do not share in the memory are only a part of themselves.”

–Madeline L’Engle, Dragons in the Waters

My girls and I spent a weekend in June helping my mother-in-law’s first cousin and her second cousin’s wife with our bi-annual family reunion. It is a gathering of several families, not just one. It used to be the Seim/Sittig reunion. Then the Johnson family started having a reunion and it became the Seim/Sittig/Johnson reunion. The Johnsons and the Seims do not share genetics with each other, but my mother-in-law’s cousin mother was a Seim and her father was a Johnson so the two families meet in her. My mother-in-law’s second cousin’s wife married a Seim and her grandmother was a Sandwick who married a Johnson so she shares ties with both bunches also.

If you’re not confused yet, stay tuned.

Lately it has just been dubbed the cousins reunion. That is perhaps simpler nomenclature and certainly all-encompassing for the many cousins who arrive from points afar. I met people who traveled to the middle of nowhere all the way from Florida to California, Wisconsin and Northern Minnesota to Texas and many points in between.

In some ways you might call it an old settlers’ reunion because the people who gather are descendants of some of the first immigrants who came to this area in the 1890’s. Some I have met before. Some I have not seen for years. Some I may never see again. Some of them share DNA with each other. Some do not. All came with smiles and enthusiasm for the visiting, the old photos and ever-growing family trees to pour over, the good food and a few beers. 

I do not share DNA with any of the families who were gathered there. My children do, but I do not. I felt it was an honor to be asked to help out, not just invited to show up. I do love this large family that I married into with its many branches and its many stories. As I helped gather my mother-in-law’s aunt’s collection of photographs and slides so they could be shared during the reunion I marveled again many times at my children’s pioneer ancestry.

I am pretty thankful that someone, a hundred or so years ago, made a point of taking pictures. I know that there is life behind the beautiful faces preserved in black and white photographs: the life that each one of those 1/60 second moments captured on film represents. The tears. The toil. The loss. The labor. The blizzards and the prairie fires. The droughts and grasshoppers and hail. The sunrises and sunsets. The grief and the hope and the grit and the grace. The long journeys and many miles that eventually brought my children’s great-great-great grandparents from their birthplace in Norway to the banks of the Grand River in South Dakota.

They are buried there. So is their infant daughter. So are two more daughters: the eldest and the youngest who died together in a blizzard. I have been struck by the realization that because they died here I now live here. I may not share their blood but I share their love of this place. The soil and the wind, the clouds and the sky, the grass and the cottonwood trees, the undulations of the hills and the flowing of the river shape who I am. I may have come because I married into this family but I’ve put down roots like the buffalo grass and the cottonwood and now I belong here just as they do.

I am still a bit dizzy with all the varying explanations of cousinship that I tried to absorb and explain over the weekend. My brain is still a jumble of faces and name tags; it is likely that I will not remember most of the names two years from now when many of us will gather again. But I will always treasure the smiles, the hugs, the stories and the affirmation that I am a part of this family even if I do not share their DNA.

And I truly marvel that so many came back to this place. This place that we share because once upon a time their great-grandparents called at home. Some of us have stayed, but even to those who left and created lives and raised families elsewhere the place that was once home was important still. They shared the stories with their children and with their grandchildren and now the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren are bringing another generation back to the middle of nowhere. To this place on the prairie where we are both Kith and Kin.