Modesto, California – July 14, 2016
I’m sitting in a quiet, dim living room populated by an assortment of old unidentifiable artifacts. I feel like I’m in a museum vault, temperature controlled and protected from light poisoning. I’m sipping a sparkling water and listening to my Aunt Ellen, my grandma’s younger sister. I can see Nana in her cheeks and my cousin Rachel in her eyes. In her armchair she waxes curmudgeonly, griping about the Pokémon people who now frequent the graveyard behind her house and complaining about her neighbor’s vociferous dogs, but always with a sly smile on her face that betrays her annoyance and suggests that she finds great pleasure in grumbling.
In the evening we venture out into the city that she has called “the armpit of California” and find a place to procure some burritos. As we eat, Aunt Ellen tells me about her world travels—about being detained at the Iraq border and narrowly avoiding the war in Lebanon and having to pee in the desert as a little shepherd boy came trotting along—as if all of it was just an inconvenient customer service call.
When we finish, she drives me to the house she and Nana grew up in. She says it makes her sad to see it but agrees to take my picture in front of it. The house is yellow now, but wasn’t back then, and is home to so many stories—Aunt Ellen attempting to kill Aunt Carole with a hammer, the girls roasting marshmallows over the stovetop, great-grandpa crooning tunes of his own invention.
Finally we return to Aunt Ellen’s house and walk directly out to the fence in her backyard. She readjusts her step-ladder, and I stand on my tip-toes, and we watch the Pokémon people mill by, relishing in bemoaning a world where gravestones are Pokéstops and a woman’s happy reclusion is so seldom respected.
Ruinen, The Netherlands – July 18, 2015
I recognize the dutiful queue of trees standing watch over the slender road just before we turn into the driveway of a small, angular house. The last time I visited was three years earlier when we dusted off the old, plastic-bound family tree book and traced our individual twigs down to the gnarled trunk. Almost immediately, Rosan and Esmé wordlessly usher me into the backyard to awe me with the trampoline tricks they’ve been perfecting. Rosan has kind eyes and has learned just enough English in school that her big cheeks flush red like apples every time I try to talk to her. Esmé looks like a caricature of innocence, with moonlike hair and ozone blue eyes. She doesn’t speak any English yet, so she just smiles at me a lot. We play a game where one person does a trick on the trampoline and the others need to imitate it, and I think about how somewhere, strung deep in our genomes, a few nucleotides resonate in primal harmony.
Vacaville, California – July 13, 2016
I give Aunt Doris a big hug, and Uncle Rob helps me carry my luggage in from the rental car. I think about how I haven’t been here in six years and am convinced that the cosmos made a clerical error—the earth must have shortcut its orbit a few times. My suspicions are confirmed when I slip on my bathing suit and walk out to the pool to find my tadpole cousins who have sprouted into veritable little froglets with powerful, kicking legs and loud, ribbeting voices. Hailey’s smile now seems as big as her entire body was the last time I visited, and she’s just beginning to grow back her two front teeth. Arielle is a caricature of mischief, with dancing eyes and a gleaming smile. She barks orders like a little terrier, and it seems that Hailey and I have no choice but to obey. We play a game where one person does a trick off the diving board and the others need to imitate it, and I think about how my uncle is adopted and my cousins and I share no genomes. But we share something perhaps deeper—narrative, maybe—and it, too, is primal and resonating.
After dinner, the girls strap on their shoes and we go on a Pokémon hunt. Sorry, Aunt Ellen. We are the Pokémon people.
Staphorst, The Netherlands – Saturday, March 30, 2012
I’m standing in the barn loft of my great great great great uncle’s house. It is quiet and dim with light hanging down in delicate sheets from the cracks in the roof. I am alone, and I am paralyzed by the overwhelming weight of some meaning that I cannot make sense of, something too old to be translated with so many irreplaceable pieces lost to time. I imagine my great great great grandpa up here pitchforking hay or leaning against a wall talking to his brother or alone and contemplating just like me. But these are all speculations. The story has frayed too much for me to follow. I take one more deep breath of this heavy air and return down the ladder.
Los Angeles, California – Friday, July 15, 2016
I have just arrived in Los Angeles and am sitting on a couch in a house that can only be described as an antique store that has come to life. There is a dismembered doll arm oscillating behind my head and on the other end of the couch is my cousin (once removed), Christopher. He has long silver hair and a wide, reaching smile. I cannot look at him without also seeing his mother’s wry grin. He methodically asks me about each of my family members, nodding along with his head propped up on his hand, and I ask about his branch of the family tree as well. It feels like I’ve known Christopher my entire life, but we figure out that I probably haven’t seen him since he was touring in the Broadway production of Grease eighteen years ago. We decide that eighteen years is too long to go between visits.
Grand Rapids, Michigan – often
In my grandparents’ condo at Raybrook, my Nana sits a little leaned over in a chair beside a table with a few pictures of various family members, past and present. She mentions speaking to Aunt Ellen and what she heard about Jonathan. Light is flooding in from the large glass sliding door, and she smiles one of my very favorite smiles at me before finally mentioning the old, plastic-bound family tree book that she has tucked away somewhere. She asks me if I might be interested in having it passed on to me someday so that I can care for our few twigs in that great, knotted tree that always seems to be dying and stretching like it just woke up from a long sleep. I always say yes.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.