I don’t recall enjoying myself more. When Mark suggested the idea eighteen months ago, I had no reservations, thought it would work, but didn’t have a clue about the positive energy the reunion would unleash.
Mark Allen Evans, a first cousin, called me on the phone in the fall of 2009 from Boise, Idaho and asked if I was amenable to getting together with him and Keith Edwin Stansell, another cousin, at my Tucson home. He said something about the commonality of our intellectual gifts and his intuition some serendipitous good could come from it. Keith (71), Mark (63), and Yours Truly (67) have never been close. Other than being first-born, we couldn’t be more dissimilar, or so I thought, as we’ve traveled such totally different roads during our lifetimes. In spite of it, I thought it would be fun to share family stories and our unique histories because of the diversity.
Mark and I knew the biggest roadblock to a visit was Keith. I’m not sure what scared him most. Perhaps it was the idea of riding in a car with Mark for 2,000 miles or his apprehension of spending too much time with me. But, it was Mark’s problem to convince Keith to join us. While the two of them were never buddies, most of their adult lives had been spent circumventing the road of hard knocks. Both of them were married three times, were now single, had survived years of addiction problems, and now had no retirement nest eggs. However, they were cum laude graduates from the School of Hard Knocks.
When Mark called thirty days ago, he was convinced, although not certain that the two of them would begin their journey to Tucson in late February. I’m not sure if it was Keith’s kids or siblings who convinced him, but all of them told him to go, that it would be good for him. Maybe at his age, this would be the last time he’d be able to make such a trip. On the day before they left, Mark called to say it was a go and that Keith’s chance to see his son Mike on the way down had clinched the deal.
However, there was one big hitch on their trip down. Mark ran out of gas just north of Flagstaff. But, with lady luck, he hitched a ride within a few minutes of their untimely stop, albeit on the bed of an open pickup from two attractive Navajo women. Fortunately, the nearest gas station was two miles away because at thirty degrees, you can hunker down only so far in the bed of a moving truck. Cold is cold.
When Mark and Keith finally arrived at our home at 11:00 PM on Wednesday, they were starving. My wife, Helen, was prepared with hot chicken tomatillo posole soup and quesadillas. That meal commenced a four-day talkathon. You’d think the guys would’ve been exhausted, but they were ready for some serious reminiscing and we didn’t head to bed until 12:30 AM.
Keith and Helen were the first to get up. When I joined them, Keith was wound up like the energizer bunny, ready for conversation. A few minutes later, a disheveled Mark staggered to the kitchen, telling us he had been awakened by the lively chatter and hoped he hadn’t missed anything. From that point at 8:00 AM, there wasn’t a lull in the conversation until thirteen hours later when we decided to call it a day. (If someone had told me beforehand that this was possible, I wouldn’t have believed it.) We packed the day with non-stop stories, heart-rending confessions, gut-wrenching laughter. We were old-men shedding tears, boys being boys, and trying as best we could to do animated imitations of our Grandpa Vern Evans. Despite several Mina moments (memory lapses), we were grateful that Mark acted on his intuition.
On Friday, we started at 7:00 AM and did not take a break, except for meals, and even then didn’t stop talking, until we went to bed at 10:00 PM. At no time during those two days did I get bored, thinking I had enough. I knew such a point would come if we allowed it, but plans were for Mark and Keith to leave on Saturday. And for the three of us, it turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a poignant, soul-stirring reunion.
After Mark returned home, he made the following Facebook post: “It was a week both magnificent and sublime—an experience that cannot be lost or taken away—for three first-born cousins who’ve come full circle in their lives and found each other again in time and space with nearly identical intellectual, philosophical and emotional states of being. It was an elevating and emotional experience filled with extreme synchronicity.”
Keith said several times that he couldn’t remember ever having a better time. In an email he confessed: “After the first fifteen minutes with Mark, what with us exchanging stories so easily, I had no more reservations about spending four days in a car with him. From experience, I’ve learned it’s hard for me to go on a road trip more than twenty-four hours with even the most compatible of companions. Even when Mark insisted he knew a better route than our GPS system suggested, I smiled and said to myself, ‘I don’t have a time limit.’ I hope Mark enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. Extending the trip a few hours gave us more time to gab.”
So what made the reunion work so well? I think it’s because we have so much in common—the same intensity, drive, and need to say what we say loudly (it’s probably because we’re hard of hearing). We are three peas in a pod when it comes to our politics, religion and compassion for the human condition. We unconditionally love our families, in spite of what we or they may have done inappropriately. We can openly admit mistakes, have learned from past errors of judgments, want to continually improve our thinking skills, aren’t inclined to blame the supernatural for the good and evil in the world, and we are unable to believe in faith-based assumptions.
Before sharing a few of the stories we told, let’s fast forward to Saturday afternoon. While Mark and Keith were driving home, three hours from Las Vegas, Mark called his sister Lynn. To his surprise, she and her sisters Nina and Ruth were in Vegas celebrating Lynn’s 60th birthday. It didn’t take long to schedule a second serendipitous reunion.
Keith described this chance meeting as “an amazing coincidence to have Mark’s sisters attending a Scrabble marathon in Vegas, when we had no idea where they were before deciding to take a different route home.”
Keith went on to say, “I’m so glad ‘the girls’ decided to come find us after we reached the MGM Grand parking garage. That place is so big, and they knew we’d get lost. While wandering through the MGM maze, Lynn and Ruth magically appeared. At first I thought it was a mirage. The girls laughed hysterically at the puzzled look on my face. How they found us, I don’t know—maybe luck or divine intervention by a higher power.”
Maybe it’s an Evans thing to get sidetracked but I wanted to share that story before sharing more about the Tucson reunion. Keith had the most to say and his openness and naiveté were catalytic. He loves telling stories, although is easily distracted. When you close your eyes and listen, it’s Grandpa talking, and he imitates Grandpa’s GODDD damn IT! to perfection.
The most heartbreaking story Keith shared was about the time he went to visit Grandma at the rest home near the end of her life journey. When Grandma saw Keith, she said, “I think I know you.”
“Yes, you do,” Keith replied.
Grandma looked into his eyes and said, “Yes, but I don’t know your name.” She hesitated and thought, “You’re someone who loves me.”
That story still brings tears to my eyes. Oh my, how we loved Grandma and Grandpa Evans. We paid tribute to them many times during our reunion, bringing tears or laughter depending on the story we told.
Some of the funniest stories Keith told were about him and his dad’s second wife, Dorothy. While she was a hardworking, devoted wife, she and Keith could be like vinegar and water at times. And when she’d get angry and frustrated with him, she’d leap out of her chair and shout, “FIE! FIE! FIE (sounds like HI) on you Keith!” and disappear into her bedroom.
On one occasion while Keith, his dad, Edwin, and Dorothy were having lunch, Keith asked if he could have more milk, as the four-ounce glass Dorothy gave him wasn’t enough. And then he added, “I could drink a gallon of milk a day.”
Dorothy replied, not loudly, but with some emphasis, “Nobody can drink a gallon of milk a day.” Keith wasn’t about to be contradicted and told her he could, and that he hadn’t said I did drink a gallon of milk everyday. He had just said he could…that he had done it several times in the past.
Dorothy’s response was louder. “Nobody can drink a gallon of milk a day!” Edwin quietly shrunk down in his chair, making it clear that he didn’t want to take sides in this argument.
Keith, now defiant, replied more loudly, “WELL, I CAN!”
Dorothy, not to be outdone, screamed, “N-O-B-O-D-Y CAN DRINK A GALLON OF MILK A DAY!”
Edwin decided to mediate and quietly said, “If you grew up on a farm and had all the milk you wanted to drink, you were able to drink more milk than most people.” It was his way of trying to diffuse the situation without saying either Dorothy or Keith were totally wrong
But that enraged Dorothy and she started screaming, “NOBODY CAN DRINK A GALLON OF MILK A DAY. FIE! FIE! FIE ON BOTH OF YOU!” She then ran upstairs and wasn’t seen for the rest of the day.
Keith said he didn’t know how his dad got over it, but Edwin had seen his boys drink a gallon of milk and knew it could be done.
Most of the Keith’s stories were self-effacing, and a few were a bit raunchy. When you’ve been married three times and been intimate friends with several bipolar lady friends over a fifty-year period, you accumulate fodder for ribald storytelling. Keith confessed when he left that he had many more tales he could have told. Maybe he’d share them on the next visit.
My favorite story was about Maria, his second wife. There was a significant age difference between the two and he knew upfront she wasn’t a cook. But she wanted to learn. After finding out he liked macaroni and cheese, she prepared that for his first meal. Keith had worked hard moving irrigation pipes that morning and he found the meal quite good and told her so. For lunch the next day, she served him hot macaroni and cheese, as she did for day three and four. On the fifth day, when Keith saw what Maria had prepared for his lunch, he instinctively, not intelligently, reacted, “GODDD damn IT! Maria, can’t you make anything but macaroni and cheese?”
Mark was less inclined to tell stories about his ex-wives and lady friends. He preferred to share detailed memories and insights about his dad and mom and how he had lost his way, getting wrapped up in his needs. His observations were often unpredictable but thought-provoking. Like, Dad was not a noble sufferer or you can’t fix stupid.
One of the stories I shared relates to my relationship with Grandma and Grandpa. Shortly after I was born, my mother decided I’d be better off raised by my grandparents. So I spent the first four months of my life at their ranch home in Robin, Idaho under their exclusive care. After Mom married Richard P. Kelly and they found a home and a job in Southern California early in 1944, she had a change of heart and decided she wanted to raise me.
You would have thought that early history ordained me with some preferential treatment. However, thirty-five years later, Grandma confessed that while she and Grandpa loved all their grandchildren the same, “Lynn Evans is our favorite.” But of course, if you know Lynn you can understand.
Grandpa also let a memorable faux pas slip, one related to Keith’s brother Ron. While Ron and Carolyn were in Homedale during their first missionary sabbatical, Grandpa asked, “So Ronny, are you going to get a real job now?” Ron didn’t want to hurt Grandpa’s feelings so he quickly changed the subject, although at the time, it hurt Ron’s feelings.
If you have read this far, I hope you’ve been amused and are happy for the three of us. Describing any memorable experience is best done when that description includes more than one point of view. And so, I’d like to stop now and let Mark share his heartfelt feeling about our Tucson reunion.
“As people read this account of what for me was The Trip of a Lifetime, I’m sure it will be interpreted in different ways. Dick thought of it as serendipitous, and Keith cathartic. For me, it was like a birth. No one forgets the birth of a child, and I’ll relegate our experience to that level.
“It’s amazing what can happen when a brief thought is followed up with action. I realized two years ago that Keith, Dick and I were the oldest siblings in our families, shared similar philosophies, and had unique experiences with our grandparents and parents. What might happen if we got together and shared stuff? But none of us were prepared for the magic that unfolded.
“We’ve been separated by years, geography, and lifestyles, but we discovered that in all our differences, we’re so much alike. We shared our love and appreciation for each other. Dick and Helen were marvelous hosts and Helen, accommodated us so we could simply talk. And talk we did, sprinkled with everything from ribald laughter to tearful poignancy.
“Dick said we’ve lived totally different lives, and that’s true. He appears to have set goals and stuck with them, although I’m certain there’ve been a few blips in the past. While Dick’s life has been meaningful specific, Keith and I have lived lives of wandering generalities. Dick made a single marriage work well, while Keith and I’ve been married three times, and we agree that it will stop there. We have led hedonistic and debauched lifestyles at times, getting lost in our love for women and other things. However, give credit to Keith and me for making that final turn to sensibility.
“The conversations during our reunion were no holds barred, as we bared our souls and talked about things we wouldn’t want to repeat outside our little circle. Keith and I have thought of additional things we’d like to address and are making a mental list for another time. The reunion didn’t seem to last long enough, but by the same token, we didn’t wear out our welcome, and all three of us realize we ended with the concept of to be continued.
“There are things that oldest siblings have in common, apart from what middle and youngest siblings share. We come into the world without playmates in the home for at least a few years. We learn to use our imaginations in a different way when we play. Relationships with our parents and other people are different. And, in our cases, we happen to have spent a lot of time with our grandparents.
“I’ve never witnessed more respect and courtesy. For three men who like to talk, there was very little toe-mashing. The floor was yielded easily. At times, specific topics would get lost and we’d meander through a maze of unrelated subjects. It was impossible to stay on track. We lost a few tales here and there, but we weren’t there to discuss anything in particular, and it was a joyous ride. The conversations were like our navigational skills, getting lost en route due to nonstop talking and skillful listening, although we eventually got back on track. Hell, getting lost was sometimes fun.
“The serendipitous events that led to meeting my sisters in Las Vegas added another wonderful chapter to our trip. I seldom get to see my sister Ruth, and that added three inches of icing to an already tall cake. While in Vegas, Keith revealed another serendipitous occurrence. The last time he was there was 1948, and I was with him. Edwin, Vera, and Keith were going to visit Dick’s mom, Faye, and my mother and I tagged along so Mom could visit with her parents in Los Angeles.
“After the visit with Nina, Lynn, and Ruth, we immediately found a cheap hotel and hit the rack. Keith woke up a little after 4:00 AM and asked if I was ready to get up. I told him simply, ‘Hell No!’ But as Keith ambled into the shower, I laid there thinking he hadn’t had the opportunity to see the Strip in the dark, so I got up. We drove up and down the main drag, over sixty years since Keith had last seen the bright lights of Vegas.
“Dick and Keith, I love you guys and know the feeling is mutual. As a young adult it often occurred to me that I wanted to lead a life with no regrets. I now realize that trip was impossible. But at 63, I have a good sense of self and the future. I’ve experienced a feeling that bringing family together should be one of my endeavors, to connect with people I love. Besides, in the feudal sense, I’m the oldest son of the oldest son of the oldest son of an oldest son. Why shouldn’t it be my responsibility?”
Postscript 1 from the author: As I waited for Keith and Mark to arrive, I had a premonition the reunion could be very special, like visits with my grandparents at their ranch in Robin, Idaho, as a boy. It was a place and time where I was showered with unconditional love, laughed a lot, and felt safe and happy to be me.
I happened to be outside when Mark and Keith arrived. It was dark but their silhouettes in the Buick’s windows were pleasing and friendly. Keith wore his hat in the car and I could imagine Grandpa doing that. Hugging was easy, without resistance or awkward turning to the side. I proudly walked them through the garage and showed them their home for the next three nights. As I helped Keith bring in his luggage, enough for six people, he said, “Thanks for inviting us to your lovely home. I’d like my daughter Kristi to visit with you sometime.” An out-of-the-blue statement that said so much more to me about his positive expectations for this visit.
The good chemistry between us was immediate. These guys were family and shared my DNA. Helen liked them too. Although Mark and Keith physically appeared as the odd couple, they emanated love and respect for each other. Considering some of the wrong turns and mishap on their drive down, they could have showed up as the Bickersons. But that wasn’t the case.
Our questioning natures really made the visit work for the three of us. It isn’t that we deny all hypothesis, it’s just that’s what we see most assumptions to be. Searching for the truth is fine. But when we’re told by someone who says they’ve found the truth, we see red flags. Keith calls it arrogance. Our common skill, a bullshit filter, wasn’t appreciated or cultivated by our parents while growing up. I in particular, due to religious abuse as a child, have never been one to believe something is so because someone says the Bible says it’s so or that only an idiot cannot believe in God. And now, I find I’m not alone.
We also share a commonality in avoiding a religious confrontation, but if you push or try to make us feel guilty, we’ll push back.
Several hours into our reunion, I did in fact feel like I was back in Robin. No, Robin had come to Tucson. Instead of the lilting cadence of Grandpa’s speech patterns, it was Keith and Mark’s. Keith even talked like Grandpa, and Mark had his wits. They knew how to laugh (Keith long, Mark short) just like Grandpa, and how to tell, no embellish, a story like only Grandpa and his brothers could do. Why even Helen fussed over us like Grandma used to. Yes, Robin had come to Tucson. However, I now had a mature, intellectual understanding of the world, but I was in that same safe place, sharing unique beliefs about the world without being made to feel guilty. And I liked being me, and I genuinely liked Keith and Mark.
I don’t ever recall being in such a compelling comfort zone as an adult. It was like we were three seasoned soul brothers, when in fact we were just getting to know each other for the first time. Our shared history helped, but our commonality was constantly getting spelled out in capital letters. I didn’t stop to analyze it at the time, I just thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
We identified an irony during the visit and spent a good bit of time brooding over it. Our grandparents, good as they were in that role, spawned lots of pain raising their children—our parents. It did not make Grandma and Grandpa bad people. All parents mess up or damage their kids. Not intentionally, as that’s the nature of parenting. All parents learn on the fly. However, we decided there were three levels to messing up. Those levels are minimal, severe and somewhere in-between. It was our collective wisdom, open to debate, that our parents, Ross, Vera, and Faye, were severely damaged from bad parenting. And the irony is that Grandma and Grandpa got it “oh so right” as grandparents, we being the fortunate recipients of those talents.
How did we rate our parenting skills? We broached that subject but we’ll leave that up to our kids to report. It was also agreed that we should and have forgiven our parents for the damage they inflicted upon us. Maybe they’ve forgiven us. But in spite of our checkered life journeys, at least as our parents assessed our travels, we’ve turned out pretty damn good.
In fact, I had an interesting phone conversation with Keith’s daughter, Kristi Szendre, shortly after Keith and Mark left on Saturday. She was very pleased that everything had gone so well at the reunion. Then, several days later she confessed the following in an outstandingly astute email:
“My dad is one of the most compassionate of men, with a large capacity to love and forgive, although not easily towards himself.
“There is a frequent misconception that once one forgives another, or oneself, all is healed, with no further need to forgive. I think it is more likely that someone worthy of forgiveness will need to be forgiven over and over. Especially when trying to forgive oneself. I am making an assumption that this was part of the deep conversation and tears the three of you shared.
“My dad and I suffer from having a deep dark side; the evil anti-Kristi, and anti-Keith. It’s possible many of the Evans family have this affliction, expressing itself in lack of self-control, obsessive, self-destructive behavior, raging, and sometimes straight up cruelty to those we love. The opposite side to this coin is the ability to have real compassion and empathy for those people we meet who’ve suffered real intra-personal pain. That is the ability to say, “you can be forgiven and loveable no matter what you have done or what you have been through in life.” And as we offer this to others, we allow ourselves to offer it to ourselves a little at a time.
“I wonder if some of this was behind your mom’s and Vera’s (Keith’s mom) addiction to religion. Was it their expression of obsessive behavior and used in ways to avoid worse, more self-destructive behaviors? Daddy has replaced his more detrimental obsessive behavior with computers. On most days he has learned to accept his humanity. But, there’s still angst at times wondering if his dad or mom would forgive him. Have you experienced similar emotions?
Postscript 2 Mark describes the love as he felt it: “A truly wonderful thing happened at our reunion—intimacy. Three mature, self-deprecating men were totally open and honest with each other. I don’t ever recall being that open with anyone or at any time in my lifetime.
“I learned a lot about Keith’s siblings during our adventure to and from Tucson. But if there is one very apparent thing, it was Keith’s love for them. And that wasn’t exclusive to Keith. I think as oldest siblings, we are given responsibilities to care for our younger brothers and sisters and learn to think of them in unique ways. I know that I gained a greater appreciation and love for my brother and sisters.
“It was inevitable that we’d talk about our individual families. These discussions ranged from humorous experiences to differences in philosophy, but never maliciously. And we came away with a greater understanding of ourselves and them. Trust me; we were never as hard on our parents and siblings as we were on ourselves.”
Mark summed up our collective learning curve from the reunion with: “Intellect and love are seldom used in the same sentence. Perhaps the right word is rapport. But, a shared intellect with people close to you goes beyond rapport. When you find you have so much in common, love has to be part of that equation. It isn’t so much what you share, but how you share it.
“I felt love knowing Keith is normally uncomfortable with touchy-feely situations and watching him unabashedly embrace his cousins. I felt love as Dick told me how much my father would have embraced the Mark he saw in Tucson. I felt love as I watched the laughter and tears we shared. I felt love in the stories of our grandparents and how we embraced them. I felt love and respect exploring our philosophies, finding many commonalities. Even when we disagreed, we did it agreeably. I felt love in our eagerness to explore deep secrets with an intimacy few adults are willing to partake.”
The Last Word: Okay, since he’s the oldest, I’ll let Keith have it, “The three of us, with little previous contact in our lives, did more than bond. I think we parted with a newfound love for each other that would have been hard to admit to a few years ago.”
And in Keith’s inimitable way, here’s why we cannot tell you more: “Sometimes it is better not to share too much with those outside the circle of three. It may be better to be a little mysterious as ‘a lady fully clothed can be sexier than one totally in the nude.’ So we’ll just be ‘showing a little leg,’ as they say, with a smile…”