Moving Rocks

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on the deck of a cabin next to Bear Lake, near the border of Utah and Idaho on Highway 89. It’s not a bad way to pass a Sunday morning: the air is cool, the sky is blue and painted with lazy, drifting clouds. Inside the cabin, my sister-in-law is making her signature blueberry pancakes, enough to feed three generations worth of descendants who have gathered to celebrate my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary.

My letter-writing proceeds in disjointed bursts. I am easily distracted by various children, the sons and daughters of my nieces and nephews, mostly—the great grandchildren here at this celebration of posterity. The door from the cabin swings open and (sometimes) shut, over and over, as the kids chase each other to and from and around and through the jungle gym here in the yard. I’m amazed that there is hardly any sign of the contention you might expect to see in a schoolyard—the fun is effortless; the laughter comes easily.

It’s remarkable  to observe that these kids are such good friends, to see how they play for hours and hours as if they are Pals For Life. Of course, many of them are— first cousins who know each other well. Others, however, are new acquaintances, but still they demonstrate that mysterious blood-bond that somehow connects relatives who may see each other only briefly every few years or so. Put strangers together and it will take a while for children to tentatively set themselves to play. But bring together cousins for the first time and comfortable familiarity prevails almost immediately.

Susie arrives and I put down the computer. She holds in her tiny fist a wooden car. As she climbs up into my lap, it occurs to me that I only learned her name yesterday. I believe she is my nephew Randall’s daughter, but I am not certain. Her age? One, maybe? On Friday night my buddy was Ethan, a precocious two-year-old (is there any other kind?) who took me by the hand to show me around. He and I spent a happy half hour moving rocks from that pile over there to this pile over here. Ethan belongs to Rob, a nephew whom I haven’t seen since his wedding seven (or so) years ago.

Ethan and Susie and I are tied together by a seemingly flimsy thread: One is the grandchild of my wife’s sister, the other of her brother. And yet the tug of love and connection I feel for them is undeniable. How can that be? What is it about family ties that generates that sort of spontaneous closeness? Why is it that we can see some people at work or in the neighborhood almost every day and hardly know them, but when we see an uncle or a cousin, even for the first time, we become intimate almost instantaneously?

I think the prophet Malachi has part of the explanation. You’ll recall, perhaps, that Malachi talked of multi-generational bonds as being an essential component of God’s eternal plan. He said that one of the vital roles of Elijah the Prophet was to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Malachi 4:6). Malachi was making reference to an ineffable pull that stirs within us, causing us to look back over generations and feel a bond with those who came before us and a yearning for our children and their children and their children, for generations to come.

After all, God wants it that way. The First Presidency has said that “the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” and that “the divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave.” When we gather as family—at a cabin in the mountains or simply over a pot roast on a Sunday afternoon, we are doing the will of God. And when we put down the computer to play with a wooden car or move rocks from one pile to another, we are answering a call that comes from afar and resonates throughout the eternities.


I Can’t Find My Egg

Dear Will:

It’s done.

On Saturday I drove my firstborn up to UCLA and deposited him in the dorms. I suspect that he had that day marked on his calendar for a couple of years, so anxious was he to get out from under the oppressive rule of his dictatorial parents. We stood there awkwardly near the 4th floor stairwell of Hedrick Hall, the dad wanting to give the boy a hug, the boy hoping desperately that the dad wouldn’t give into the temptation. The dad walked away unsatisfied.

When evening rolled around I was already feeling left out and disconnected. I was hoping he would call and tell me all about it—even though I knew there couldn’t possibly be anything to tell. What does one do in the first few hours of dorm life? You haggle with your roommates over storage space. You wander around and get the lay of the land. You eat your first meal in the dorm cafeteria. What’s to tell?

Still, I wanted desperately to know. When he failed to call the next day I was really feeling it. Why doesn’t he call? I texted him a couple of times, giving him the electronic equivalent of a poke in the ribs. Nothing. I coaxed his sister into giving him a call. He didn’t pick up. I knew very well that he was making the conscious choice not to call home right away—and I understood that choice—but for selfish reasons I still wanted to hear from him. In a similar position, who wouldn’t?

My wife, for one. She had also marked that day on her calendar way back when. She has known for some time that Luke and she would both be better off once he moved out of the home. There is no doubt that he has outgrown the nest, and mama bird was eager for him to go root around for his own worms. She will miss him, I’m sure—but not yet.

And certainly not like I do. I think that feeling of loss is exacerbated by the fact that Luke is going to UCLA, just like his old man. He’s living in Hedrick Hall, just like his old man. I spent six of the happiest years of my life on that campus, earning two degrees along the way. That place isn’t merely home to me. It’s the Motherland. I am connected to UCLA on such a deep level that if I were a penguin I’d probably travel to Westwood every year to lay my egg.

Maybe what I’m saying is that I’m a different sort of bird than my wife. At any rate, these last few days I’ve felt very much like a penguin: waddling around, flapping my flightless wings, cold. And worse: I can’t find my egg anywhere.

When Luke finally called home, it was only because his kid sister implored him via text message: “Dad is freaking out. Please call so we don’t have to put up with him anymore.” (Or something like that.) His report was brief, devoid of meaningful depth or detail, just like his reports have always been. It was unsatisfying, to be sure, but it was a start. Or at any rate, it was a sign that he hadn’t just dropped us altogether. Nevertheless, the dropping has begun—of that I have no doubt.

There may be lessons in all of this. Malachi certainly taught of the cross-generational ties that should bind us (“the hearts of the fathers will turn to the children, and the hearts of the children will turn to the fathers”).  But I take no comfort from such prophecies. Instead I keep hearing the words of the apostle Paul: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Paul was writing to the Corinthians about spiritual maturity, of course, but I still take it personally.

Luke has begun putting away his childish things. And it turns out I’m one of them.


It Gives One Pause and a Little Tug

Dear Will:

Earlier this month my father turned 83. My mother’s 80th birthday is in about 10 days. So imagine my excitement when they told me they had decided to take a trip to Turkey. Their plane left this morning.

My parents enjoy traveling, but Turkey was never really on their list. However, when my sister’s husband, who works for the military, found himself assigned to a military base there, my parents’ vacation priorities shifted. Flying to Turkey is the sort of thing that parents do, apparently, especially when there are a passel of grandkids involved. Even when you’re in your eighties.

As you well know, that bond between parent and child is a strong one, not typically muted by passing years. Consider, for instance, that my sister Susan was born over 40 years ago. She has long since “left the nest.” Meanwhile my parents are really beginning to show their age, having fought battles with cancer and strokes and even a couple of knee replacement surgeries. Given those facts, it’s not hard to construct a pretty good case against this trip. Believe me, I tried. But even though my father acknowledged that this trip probably wasn’t the best idea, they would not be dissuaded. Their course was set and their cause was clear: One of their babies—and that baby’s babies—couldn’t make it home for holidays (much less Sunday dinners), and they didn’t want to wait any longer to hug and hold each one of them and admire the refrigerator art of a my sister’s five children.

That tug of affection across generations is an eternal verity, a manifestation of the ineffable bond linking son to father to grandfather and on. Even before the days of Christ, Malachi spoke of the hearts of fathers turning to their children, and the hearts of children turning to their fathers. It is that selfsame spirit which leads the curious to embark on a passionate search for ancestors, the resulting family tree branching back into history a dozen generations or more. It’s an amazing phenomenon.

I’ve had all of this on my mind lately, and not just because my elderly parents are traveling half-way across the world when they might be better off sitting on the sofa and watching the NCAA Tournament (my Bruins are in the Final Four!) You see, just last week I received via email an electronic copy of my wife’s genealogy and discovered that someone, by some means, has traced her heritage back into the 1500s. That’s over 400 years worth of family foliage, a staggering amount of research and a humbling glimpse of one’s past. As I stared at the screen of my computer I was in awe:

Christopher Worrilow – Born, 1579, Haughton, Staffordshire, England; died in 1605 [so young!], a year or so after his son John was born. He and his wife Margery died on the same day.

Wouldn’t you love to know how they died, and who raised little John, and the answers to half a dozen other questions? I don’t even know where to begin such an inquiry, but I do know this: The Internet has now made it possible even for a hack like me to tinker with family history. (You should check out—wow!) At any rate, it does give one pause—and a little tug—as eternal forces compel us to try to pull together our families across continents and cultures and many generations.