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We now have no mothers nor fathers. Adult orphans one could say. We cousins have become the elders in our clan.

Our mothers were all children of the Great Depression. Two of the three married alcoholics. Two saw one of their children die. All were widowed. All found comfort in their faith. Growing up we had no Sandman family reunions or holiday celebrations with a houseful of cousins. We were strangers most of our lives, until texts reporting deaths drew us closer.

I pull into the Pizza Ranch in Fort Dodge a bit before noon on a Friday in June. The three Iowans sit waiting on a bench, shaded from the rising summer sun. Diane, my sister a decade my senior and still recovering from her second knee replacement surgery, carefully climbs out of the front seat. She removes the white cane tucked alongside the back seat where our sister Mary sat unable to see any silos or horses on the country drive from Omaha that started hours before.

Joyful hugs ensue. Six of us made it to the annual cousin conclave. Three named Mary by our Catholic mothers—Leona, Marcella (my mom, known as Sally), and Alvina. We take a table in a room away from the bustling lunch crowd. We fill our plates with chicken and pizza from the buffet. Mary from Milford invites a blessing. A dozen hands join as though a priest had spoken “Let us pray.”

After commenting on the quality of the mashed potatoes and gravy, the catching up of lives of the last year begins.

To reduce confusion, each Mary is designated a geographic identity. Eastern Mary, my sis, shares the update on her new cat, Zeus. Northern Mary tells of long hours at the motorcycle factory and daily visits to her brother Ed with esophageal cancer. He would die ten days later.

Western Mary describes visits to supper with her daughter disabled from multiple rare diagnoses. Despite monthly chemo infusions, Lila says she’s feeling pretty good. My brave big sister keeps to herself the crushing heartbreak of her great-grandchildren’s move out of town, and the ugly reasons why.

After our fill of chocolate pudding and noise from pinball machines in the adjacent room, we head to a nearby park where we admire koi in the pond and carry on our connecting at a picnic table in the shade.

Conversations turn to our mothers. Aunt Alvina, known for sewing countless colorful dresses for children in Africa. People scoffed when she started the first garage sale at her church in Oelwein, until it became a time-honored town tradition. Aunt Leona—who critiqued the high price of the quiche lorraine if one tried to treat her to brunch— grew her family’s food in great gardens on her lot on the edge of town.  Both lived into their 90s, which gifts me great optimism about seeing one hundred.

Unlike her sisters, Mom wasn’t known for her sewing, gardening, or even cooking. Working low wage jobs in the city while supporting her 8 children on her eighth-grade education was her path.

A quiet reverence came over the conversation as the late afternoon sun lowered behind the haze from the Canadian wildfires. We had our own challenges, but gratitude was in abundance for the gifts we’d been given by the women who raised us— resilience, grit, and one another.

Coach Koenig

What gifts did you receive from your elders?

Do you stay connected with family near or far?

Do have any plans for reconnecting with those you’ve lost touch with?