Last week the man who sparked my interest in Kansas history passed away at 97. James Henry Mullins Jr. was the father of nine, grandfather of twenty, and great-grandfather of 25. And we were all there this weekend, in Atchison, to celebrate the life of a man who, despite these impressive numbers in his progeny, was only with one person at a time. You. When you were speaking with him, he was only with you. At both the rosary and the funeral, two uncles and the priest all spoke of how grandpa taught us all how to be a family. They spoke of how accepting he was of difference, his quiet demeanor, his dry sense of humor. I don’t remember anyone ever seeming to feel judged by him, belittled in any way, or ignored. He would sit, or stand next to you, and when you spoke there was nothing else on his mind but what you were saying. He made all his grandchildren feel as if he loved them most of all. That is how he taught us to be a family, because it isn’t always easy: when you are with someone, be with them. Don’t let your mind take you somewhere else, some other time. Even if you’re a novelist.
The day of the rosary three of his sons and three of his grandsons (including me) played his favorite golf course–once a cow pasture, a course he helped found in the 60s–and I could feel him as I stepped onto the tee-box on 1, overlooking the broad, sloping fairway; in the northerly wind as it spread the old oak leaves on 4; but mostly, as I kneeled on the 9th green and watched my uncles, and my cousins, as they shared this cool, sunny afternoon together. We were doing what he seemed always to do–just being together. Just being. And he was with me. He is with me now, as I write this, folded back gently into the God from which he came in 1917. And now, as I’ve returned to Denver, my job and commute and parenting, and all my 44 cousins and 7 surviving aunts and uncles return to their lives (not to mention the countless friends of the family who spent the weekend with us) and Facebook is flooded with pictures of the weekend, I’m reminded to do just that–just be.
The characters in the Second Song, as well as the first, struggle with this as well, of course. Monsters from their past, their future, thoughts of what they should be or should have been torment them. But every now and then, perhaps on a porch with family, it all dissolves away. These are the most precious moments in any life, in any age. I’ve written about this before, but something about history and family history also compels me to just be.
This photo is of grandpa’s mom, Mabel Mullins, her sister Edith, and a family friend with her son. It’s just like so many of the pictures flooding my social media world today, various groupings of sisters and cousins and uncles and second-cousins, just being together. And it leaves me to believe that grandpa would have it no other way, except that this being would transcend familial ties. I think he would ask us all to see that time, and place, and blood, are all transcended. If we decided, here and now, to just be.