On New Year’s Eve, 1963, my grandparents’ house burned down.
They rebuilt. Their three daughters (and their husbands) came from around the country to join them in Fort Wayne, Indiana for Christmas, 1964, in their new, three-story farmhouse. I hadn’t been born yet, but I think one or two of my older cousins may have been there. Apparently my grandfather, Rudy Seddelmeyer, enjoyed the holiday so much that he said we should repeat the experience in five years.
And so, in 1969, we did. I was only two years old, so I don’t remember it. But I had more cousins to play with. By this time my family had moved back to Indiana, so we were now much closer to the farm on Tillmann Road in Fort Wayne than anyone else. We visited frequently, and I have many fond memories of playing in that farmhouse, which seemed so huge to me. And of course the farm itself seemed to be almost infinite.
In the summer of 1973, all three daughters and their children (numbering six now) visited the farm. My mom made a Super 8 film of the grandkids helping milk the cows.
In 1974 we did the Christmas reunion again. I was seven. I think this may have been the time when Grandpa Rudy made a tape recording of the event. He interviewed everybody there. I haven’t heard it for years, but I remember my cousin Tami, who had been adopted that year and was still just a baby, reciting a prayer in Korean. Had Stuart been born yet? I’m not sure.
In 1979, Grandpa Rudy was killed in a terrible farming accident. He was seventy. That Christmas, we continued the tradition and had our reunion. It must have been a bittersweet event, but I can’t say I really recall much of it. I was twelve. All eight grandkids were definitely there; my generation was complete.
In 1984, we had another reunion. I was seventeen. I was going through my high school Thespian phase and I guess I was a bit of a ham, because I emulated Grandpa Rudy and made a tape recording. We had our first in-law at this reunion, as my cousin Ross was married.
1989 was the last time we celebrated Christmas together in the old farmhouse on Tillmann Road. My memories of the event are indistinct, but I think that we now had too many family members to all fit comfortably in the farmhouse, so some of us had to bed down in a nearby motel.
Some time shortly thereafter, Grandma Mildred sold the farm and moved into the Lutheran Home.
In the fall of 1994, my mom and I shot some interviews with Mildred, walking around the cemetery of Concordia Lutheran Church, looking through old photos, visiting the farm on Tillmann Road, and the older farm where she’d grown up (known in the family as Cut-up Acres when Ferguson Road was put right through the middle of it). Unfortunately there was a problem with the camera, so the video flickers a bit and the audio has an annoying buzz.
For Christmas, 1994, we had our seventh reunion in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where my aunt and uncle have a winter home. We rented condos. There were now 25 people in attendance — plenty of great-grandkids. We went for a giant sleigh-ride. We snowmobiled in Yellowstone. I was in my full ROX phase, so of course I shot a video about it.
Mildred died in 1997. When I attended her funeral in Fort Wayne, I thought to myself, I will probably never visit this city again. And I haven’t.
Xy and I moved to New Orleans in 1999. But just before I left Bloomington, one of my last acts at the Daisybrain Media Center was to edit the video I’d shot in Jackson Hole. For Christmas that year we reunited in Scottsdale, Arizona. No one in the family lives in Scottsdale, which was the whole point: Neutral territory meant no one would have to bear the burden of playing host to such a large group. Dealing with eleven households can be a bit of a strain! So we all stayed in a hotel, but everyone agreed this was not conducive to visiting with one another. It was also our first Seddelmeyer Family Reunion without a living Seddelmeyer present. I showed my video and gave everyone a copy on VHS.
In a couple days Xy & I will depart for Kiawah, South Carolina, for the Ninth Seddelmeyer Family Reunion. We’re renting condos, and the plan is to dine together each night, taking turns providing meals for each other. I’m cooking Jambalaya for Thursday.
My mom prodded me to finally get off my ass and do something with the video that I shot of Mildred ten years ago. I’ve been working on that, off and on, for the past couple weeks. And now I’ve got a stack of DVDs to hand around. The DVD contains not only the interviews with Grandma, but also the Super 8 film from 1973 and the Jackson Hole video from 1994. I’m pretty happy with the final product, even though the Mildred interviews are marred by technical problems.
All this family history might make it seem like I’m looking forward to the reunion with rapt anticipation. But I’m not. My feelings are complicated and hard for me to understand myself, much less put into writing. I can’t contemplate my family without an overwhelming sense of melancholy detachment; I face this reunion with anticipation and dread.
I’m not really that close to my immediate family; my extended family is so geographically dispersed and so seldom seen that they are almost strangers. Many of them seem to be devout, church-going Lutherans; I am not. Many of them seem to be conservative Republicans; I am not. All of them have kids, except for Cousin Stu, who’s single. Xy and I will be the only child-free couple there. I think that, in my mind, my family is emblematic of an America from which I feel deeply alienated.
(While working on this DVD, it struck me that, as marginal as I may feel, I am also playing a central role as a sort of family historian. There’s an attractive power in such a role. The pale ghosts of memory can’t compete with the vivid images of video. What do I remember from all the reunions past? Mainly, I remember what was recorded. Everything else fades.)
But what, exactly, am I afraid of? This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately, attempting to plumb the depths of my soul. I don’t really like what I find, because it suggests I’m a somewhat shallow and selfish person. But in the spirit of radical honesty, here goes: I think I’m afraid of not being known and loved for who I really am.
This reunion is not all about me, but even if it was, we might still not have enough time, over the course of three or four days together, to fully explore and examine all the nuances of my personal anguish and resentment. Yet, strangely, that’s what some part of me wants. I want them to know my pain. Perhaps that’s infantile; I don’t really know. I’d be more than happy to return the favor, to listen as each member of the family bares his or her soul. Only then could we really come to know and love each other. Or so it seems to me.
I did this with my father in 1997, and it was hell, and it took a whole year, but our relationship is so much the better for it.
I need to face up to the fact this sort of deep encounter is not going to take place with my extended family. Even if everyone was game — and they’re not — it would be impossible to achieve such a level of intimacy with so many people at once. But it might be realistic to have just a few heart-to-heart exchanges with just a few relatives. If I could leave feeling that I’d come to better know a few of my relatives, and they me, I think I’d be satisfied.
Still, it is a daunting prospect.