A hundred years ago a girl was born in Ketchikan, Alaska. Her name was Evelyn. Her family was doing well for itself. The father owned a cannery there, which prospered selling canned salmon to the thousands of gold seekers provisioning their adventures into the Klondike. But the father lost the cannery “on the turn of a card”, I’ve been told, and the family was left destitute. They moved to Seattle, where Evelyn’s older sister started a nursery and supported the family selling plants. Perhaps this is why Evelyn herself eventually became a very enthusiastic grower and propagator of hybrid rhododendrons.
When I was a young boy, I knew Evelyn in that way children know people. Married to my father’s oldest brother, she was half of a pair of people I knew as Uncle Jim and Aunt Evelyn, and I thought it had always been that way. They were one in my mind. But as we grow up to learn, our aunts and uncles and parents and grandparents all started out as singletons, growing up as individuals in families of their own, with or without brothers and sisters. In fact, Evelyn had been married before and had borne children in that marriage who, by the time I was born, had already borne their own, so that I had a first cousin my parents’ age whose first daughter was my age. This girl my age, two months older than me, was named Karen and I adored her.
Karen and her siblings, and their mom, my cousin Maureen, arrived in Seattle out of nowhere one day when I was eight or nine, to my great confusion. I’d never even heard of them. Actually, they came from Spain. Maureen’s husband was a pilot, I believe, in the Air Force or the Navy, and they’d been living over there. Karen’s little sister Diana was born there. It never occurred to me to ask in what way these people were my cousins. Cousins were cousins, and the more the merrier. I understood they were not blood relatives, but I didn’t know that Maureen was part of a family Evelyn had raised before she married my uncle. Karen called my Uncle Jim “Grandpa”, which I thought was a riot. It was only many years later that I understood that Maureen was Evelyn’s daughter and that Karen was her granddaughter.
It is not surprising, in retrospect, that I didn’t know anything about this family before they moved back here. My dad, born in 1930, was the youngest of six children, and Jim, the oldest, was born a decade and a half earlier. We went to Uncle Jim and Aunt Evelyn’s house in Seattle — we called it a mansion — a few times a year, most notably on the first weekend in August to watch the hydroplane races from the balcony, and on this day the house was always full of people I didn’t know, almost all of them cousins of some ordination or removal.
Evelyn spent a lot of time outside in the garden, and when we visited she always greeted us with an apology for her unkempt appearance, even though she positively radiated beauty from deep within. Her cheeks were always bright rosy red. I had the impression every time she opened the great wooden front door that she had just run in the back door doffing her garden gloves and brushing the soil off of her elbows. She often opened the door in a green button-down sweater and slacks, as I recall, and she had curls of red hair that did not fall as hair does today but rose up like cumulus clouds on a breeze. When I became interested in plants later on, working in nurseries and even dabbling in propagating some fragrant ornamental shrubs, Evelyn was very excited and shared with me her experiences attempting to develop rhododendron hybrids that might prove interesting. At that time, seventeen years ago, she was eighty-three and still working outside in her large fields of rhodies.
We honored Evelyn last Sunday at a party celebrating her 100th birthday. Evelyn has always struck me as someone who loves people but doesn’t like attention, so this event, which brought her children and grandchildren from far north in the Canadian province of British Columbia and from Portland, Oregon, and who knows where else (I didn’t even get a chance to meet and talk to them all), must have been a mixed blessing for her. The amazing thing to me was that there were so many people whom, once again, I didn’t know; older ladies who pointed to photos of Evelyn standing with people in a house somewhere long ago and said things like “well, that’s got to be the summer house, I can tell by the windows”, and “there I am with bad hair”. I asked some of these people who they were, how they were related to Evelyn, and it turns out that here, at last, were the people from that shadowy past I had never even intuited as a boy: her sister’s children, and their children and nephews and nieces. These last, handsome men and women just starting to go grey around the temples, turned out to be the children I had run around with at the “Big House” on race days. They remembered the balcony, and the secret closet that led from one bedroom to another, and the secret back-stairway from the upstairs down to the kitchen, and the skateboards that Uncle Jim brought out for the big kids to skate down the driveway on. Some were new members to the family, like Miriam, the wife of one of Evelyn’s grandsons, and Alistair, the husband of one of her granddaughters.
Mara took a particular shine to Miriam, who has an uncommon capacity for the kind of energy that the only person between two and thirty at a three-hour-long stand-around-and-talk event would be brimming over with. (When later we told Mara what a trooper she had been and empathized with her that the afternoon must have seemed a little boring, she said, “Yeah, I just sat there the whole time counting wheelchairs…in my head.”)
All of the attendees had a different experience of this wonderful woman, and they all loved her and called her their own, and very few of them had my last name. Evelyn’s life filled the room on Sunday, and now it all made sense to me. All these people were my family through her. It was a strange experience, and I wish I’d had time to get to know more of them, but many had to leave before I even learned their names. And the best surprise of all was that Karen — whom I still adore and whom we have not seen since before Mara was born — was there and waiting for us with a big hug (Karen, too, had a certain something that Mara was drawn to, but as long as I’ve known Karen she’s had that effect on everyone).
Oddly enough, it occurred to me Sunday that anyone could see at a glance that my Aunt Evelyn, my cousin Maureen and my first cousin once removed Karen are mother, daughter and granddaughter. I chuckle now that this was not obvious to me when I was younger. It is only in the last decade, however, that I have developed that particular vision about people’s faces — both men and women, and especially strangers — whereby I can see the once-young face in the old and the old face yet-to-be in the young. It makes me view the aged as more beautiful and the young as more tragic, and all of them as people whose lives are real and important and priceless, even if those lives are barely or not at all known to me. It seems to me now that we come into and go out of our prime of beauty and strength so quickly, but we do not go entirely.