Family Soul

By Tom Attig

The last Nagel reunion took place one summer day in 1981 at my Aunt Gertie's home in suburban Chicago. We called it the "Nagel" reunion because my Grandma, Mom, and her siblings were Nagels. Grandma had died several years before and her daughter, Clara, nearly twenty years before her. Her eight surviving children were there. Mom and her sisters Christine and Hilde were widowed. Gertie, her fraternal twin Mary, Herm, Billy, and Dick were there with their spouses. A dozen or so of the eighteen in my generation were there, most with spouses and little and growing children of our own. There were somewhere between thirty and forty of us.

It was in many ways like so many of the holiday gatherings that I counted among the most wonderful experiences of my childhood. Though they had more character etched in their features and more white hair, my aunts and uncles were as lively and sometimes challenging and frustrating as ever. My aunts' features only hinted at resemblance to Grandma. My uncles resembled more than ever the grandfather I knew only through photographs. My generation was filled with grown-up versions of the bodies and personalities I remembered, some difficult but most endearing.

The gathering was large and tended to overwhelm, as it always had. I felt as if I wanted to be everywhere at once. We couldn't help recalling and talking about the earlier gatherings, many in Grandma's home. Family soul food was consumed in large quantities, as usual. There was a bit of the old music. But mostly there was joy in seeing one another again.

Clearly, it was still Grandma's family. Yes, it was Grandpa's, too, but none really thought of it that way. In my experience, he has always been a shadowy family figure. He was apparently a difficult man in many respects, few ever talked about him, and fewer still comfortably acknowledged any likeness to him.

I am sure I was not alone as I sensed that Grandma was with us in the warmth, good humor, and laughter we shared. We felt the same welcoming embrace of family, easy acceptance, interest and delight in one another, willingness to overlook shortcomings and set aside differences, and sense of belonging when we went to her home. And there was her great love of children. So many new faces, including my own three, were being introduced to the larger group that day, relatives living and dead.

I sensed her presence, too, in the worry that now and again came to the surface. It is a family resemblance that none are too comfortable about acknowledging. Grandma could worry about anything. She was endearing when she sometimes laughed with others later when she realized how far senseless worry had taken her. Of course, there were other times when her worry drove us to distraction, as it made her controlling and overprotective. But now that we had some distance from those times, we could laugh when someone noticed the family resemblance.

No one ever talked (or for that matter talks) about the pain of missing Grandma. Explicit talk about feelings is not a Nagel inheritance or one of Grandma's legacies. And no one called everyone together to remember or acknowledge Grandma. Yet conversation turned as easily to her as to other subjects.

Many in Mom's generation told stories about growing up in Chicago, life with Grandma, her hardships and trials, and how much she loved us all. Others in my generation recounted their childhood memories of her as a grandmother. Some told stories of special moments and the wonderful craziness of having her in our lives, even the frequent exasperation. Some no doubt remembered without saying a word. As usual, it was not always easy to find an opening to speak. Some of us stood back from the crowd for a moment and noticed how the rhythms and character of family life were being repeated in my cousins' and my generation. No doubt many joined me in feeling grateful for how the family and the reunion were possible because of her, though none of us said so explicitly.