It is the near misses that make me cry. Moments when the sheer magnitude of what might have been instead of what is looms up, reminding us on a cellular level of the vulnerability of each moment. It is so improbable that our lives are what they are.
At the family reunion I studied the family tree going back to Indian John Glick and the succession of wives and descendants, through generations of names which were little more than names—Samuel, Barbara, Samuel L., John, Mary, Rebecca, and my personal favorite—Magdalena. We traced the move from the Big Valley in Pennsylvania to the many acres in Minot, ND where the round barn encircling the silo now stands. And then Levi and Barbara (whose Bible I held) produced Andrew who married Amy, and it all came to life like Dorothy’s entering Oz. Amy! I remember her—a short, stout woman in plain clothes with a fierce face who would not have a paper towel in her kitchen. I have some blankets quilted by her arthritic fingers on long North Dakota winter nights. And Amy bore Elizabeth, Margaret, Elvin, Oren, John, Lydia, and Ervie. It reads like the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Libby tells me there were two miscarriages in there, and I feel grief at who might be missing.
Elizabeth—Libby to most, with her bright eyes and quiet presence held my hand during the morning grace, sung in 4-6 parts like the proverbial heavenly choir. She used to work real estate and now she works Sudoku. Margaret, my mother-in-law, with her careful words and the sad smile behind her eyes has just come back from the edge of death. She doesn’t talk much about it, and brought home made soap for everyone. Elvin and John among the siblings were not there, succumbing to cancer more than two reunions ago. But I remember Elvin from Turtle Lake when he choked up with gratitude for the faith heritage given by their parents, and made us all kneel by our chairs in the dining hall to say thank you. Oren has the restless mind and Howard Zinn’s iconoclastic history book ever at the ready. Lydia the Brave who has a larger perspective about it all than many people could hold, sent me home with a hand-made dish towel. And Ervie the professor who was the mover and shaker behind the genealogical research smiles when he holds the microphone and whose grandchildren adore him.
But that family tree—if a single name on there had been different, we would not have been there gathered. If a single person had, on an auspicious night, said “Not tonight dear, I have a headache,” I would not be writing this. There is a nervous burden to knowing that one’s life depends on the "yes" of generations of people day after day; millions of yesses going back not only to this particular tree but to all the trees it connects with—Magdalena’s family tree, and the three Barbaras—the women married into the Glicks but whose own existence was equally unlikely and dependent on the yesses of their own descendants.
And then there’s Rhoda, a Pennsylvania farm wife married to Isaac Metzler who had already borne him three children and then died in childbirth with the fourth. Three months later Isaac, desperate for a wife to care for these children, married Mae, a young girl who certainly wasn’t ready to be mother to four. Over the next twenty years she bore eleven more children, the fifth of whom was Everett, now married to Margaret Metzler, my mother-in-law. In Vietnam Margaret delivered Eric, my companion of 27 years, and father to Jesse and Margaret. I looked around the porch at all the people gathered there in that other family reunion and realized they were all descended through Mae. How much I owed Rhoda, whose life ebbed away in tortuous pain as she labored to push new life into the world. What a terrible way to die. I’m sure she did not go willingly, and I hope that there is an alternative universe out there somewhere, where Rhoda lives and can be found on the front porch of the old farmhouse knitting booties for a great great grandchild due any moment. Had she not died, I would have a completely different life today.
The near misses are the cloak and dagger moments which play in our minds—“It almost was not so, you know. Hold this moment dearly but lightly. You do not know the consequences of anything. It could all have been otherwise.” What if an ancestor had decided to stay home and read a book instead of going out into the winter’s night to the dance? What if the guitar player had not gotten sick, inciting them to ask me to step in to play at Clair and Richard’s wedding where I met Eric? What if a single detail had been different, changing the course of history? It seems to me that history hangs on minutiae—this train, that potluck, this grocery store, that bench, this flyer, that book, this elevator, that café, this song, that garden. Our very existence is grounded in the scandal of the particular.
And that’s why I cry when I think on these things. The single, particular possibility is so fraught with danger, as easily breakable as a flower stem. The single moment is as vulnerable as a lily, as fragile as a breath. It is held up by a collective of equally defenseless moments, any one of which could collapse and change the whole picture. Would that be bad? It John had married Rachel instead of Magdalena, and if this moment in my life contained a Luther instead of an Eric, would that be a tragedy? Maybe not. But this is the life I know and love. These are the faces I cherish. I could love other faces, just as passionately, but this is what I have been given.
Aslan the Lion warns us against asking “What if?” projecting different outcomes for events already occurred. It is useless to speculate. All that remains is to relax into the here and now as it is, and give thanks for all of it. “What if I had not seen the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living?” asks the psalmist. I cannot change an iota of the past except in how I understand its meaning. There is only the present which rests on the shoulders of all that has come. Playing on the floor around the ankles of Oren and Libby, Lydia, Margaret and Ervie, are their grandchildren and great grandchildren. There is something of the DNA of Indian John and Magdalena and all who passed between them still present in these children.
Perhaps the “What if?” is not about what might have been, but of what choices we might make now to help fashion a world for these young ones where traditions give meaning grounded in love, innovation opens possibility, and they are taught to see through the filter of awe and wonder.
Carolyn W. Metzler 8/5/2010