There are people in our lives that we admire for their adventurousness. They are the wanderers, not content to stay in one place too long. We live vicariously through their pictures, videos, and stories. I have an aunt that was a legend to me growing up. I remember sitting in my grandparent’s living room with the lights low, watching home movies she had sent of her fire walking across glowing embers and scuba diving (in diving cages) in murky green ocean water with Great White sharks. Savannah animals- cheetah’s, lions, gazelles adorn her bedroom, professional quality pictures taken by my aunt on African safaris. She returned from the misty jungle mountains of Uganda with pictures of silver backed gorillas, taken mere feet from her subjects. Her living room is adorned with pictures she took of icebergs on her trip to Antarctica. Moody compositions- swirls and stark contrasts of black and white- ice, sky, and ocean. Opaque, turquoise blue mountains of ice with the sun reflecting through crevasses.
She grew up in a small hill-country town, on a family ranch where my father still lives. She started out in a small country school, but rounded out her education with a law degree from the University of California. We grew up only a mile apart, although with a 30 year difference. We attended the same school district, although when I went through, the Austin-area town was growing at a remarkable rate. The stories of my aunt’s successes, her wanderings, and her ability to succeed and compete on a national level were inspirational to me.
I came to realize, as I grew older, that the elder generation of my family didn’t necessarily share my awe. My family has deep roots in Burnet County, being one of the first families to settle the area (besides the plains Indians that had already been established there). My grandmother and grandfather lived in the same house all their lives. My father went to college, lived in Colorado a few years, but ultimately returned to the family plot to build his own home and raise his family (my sisters and I). At one point my uncle and his children were also living just down the road from us. Family roots and heritage run deep. My aunt’s desire to live so far from home was often a source of misunderstanding and confusion for her brothers and parents. Naturally, after living in other areas, she would return to family get-togethers with different ideas and viewpoints. This, again, I found fascinating and again quickly realized wasn’t necessarily equally fascinating to everyone else.
There have been key times in my life where my aunt influenced me in ways she probably doesn’t even realize. Ways that my parents feared she would. It’s interesting to me, that despite my parents’ best efforts to shelter me and shape my views, just a weekend spent with my aunt was equally impactful.
I stayed with her one weekend while she was living in Colorado and she took me to the Denver Museum of Natural Science and History. I fell in love with the fossil exhibit. Seeing the evolution of organisms, the actual specimens themselves preserved in stone, cemented in my mind the truth of the controversial theory of evolution, in contrast to fundamental beliefs I had been taught. Looking at the skeletons, and creature imprints, obviously very different than the current animals, was powerful, without any need to argue the point. I doubt my aunt even realized the import of that visit – she just knew I loved museums and wanted to spend an afternoon with her niece. Later, as a high school biology teacher, I have taught many students about the evidence, in addition to fossils, of evolution and change of species over time.
She loved to read, and although she was unwilling to part with her collection of books, her prized possessions, I often read them when I visited. Her taste differed from what I had been exposed to before. The ideas and themes I read embedded themselves in my mind, often much later resurfacing as cracks in my world-view.
During my separation from my first husband over a particularly difficult Christmas break, I stayed with her and stayed up late into the night talking. She had married particularly early in life as well and watched that marriage quickly deteriorate. We discussed life choices, past relationships, mirroring each other’s pain in many ways. As the “black sheep” of the family, she was a loved one that I felt truly understood my struggle. She understood my struggle with family disappointment, guilt, and at the same time the greater need to walk away.
My aunt actually did move back to her childhood home for several years. She helped her aging father with the ranch, and shared his last decade on Earth as a neighbor within walking distance, after years of being the prodigal daughter. I know this brought joy to my Papa in his last years, and was immeasurably precious to my aunt. My sweet grandfather passed away this summer, and as summer comes to a close my aunt began preparations to move again. Texas heat, proximity to family, down-sizing with age, the pain of daily seeing my Papa in the rustling leaves of the oaks on the family ranch- many of the reasons that have prompted her to move back to Colorado. Again, several family members have struggled with her decision to leave. Why isn’t she content to stay? I have pondered this, as we have all absorbed the news of her move.
As my aunt begins packing and down sizing she has offered family heirlooms that have been in her possession to her nieces and nephews, having no children of her own. My sister received a collection of family photographs that my aunt has been collecting and digitizing over the years. It represents a massive amount of time and care, a deep love of family heritage. My other sister asked for a quilt brought with my great-grandmother from Tennessee when they migrated to Texas. A third item was a trunk brought in the covered wagon from Tennessee, containing the family’s possessions. The artifacts made me start thinking about my ancestors, and how my great-great-grandfather had decided to leave Tennessee and become a pioneer, making a new home in Texas. He was one who left his family and chose adventure and the unknown. His children settled in the new area and chose to stay and put down roots. Of the great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, some have chosen to stay and enjoy the fruits of their family heritage, other have chosen to leave in pursuit of new opportunities. Leaving is not a character flaw, but rather a character trait, although, whichever character you personally possess can make it difficult to understand those that represent your opposing side. My aunt shares more in common with her pioneering forefather who left for lands unknown and thrived on those new experiences. My father shares more in common with the forefather’s grandson, the patriarch and founder of Burnet County who established and cultivated that particular area; pouring blood, sweat, and tears into a parcel of land and the people of the community.
This theme of those that leave and those that stay has been echoing through my mind, both as I consider my family situation and as I attend new teacher in-service. In education, there are those that leave and those that stay. Those that put down roots and pour themselves into the community they serve. Their years of service rack up, and they become pillars of the community, legends in the school’s history, a constant presence that the students and parents come to rely on. There are also those that stay a few years and move on. They infuse the staff with new perspective, new skills, and new views.
I left my current school district for a year and am returning. My personality shares a bit of both worlds, sometimes tugging me in two directions. I enjoy meeting new people and learning new educational strategies. I love to go on long road trips, exploring new areas and seeing sites new to me. I enjoy camping and feeling the thrill of being out of my familiar element, a bit of danger and a reminder that outside my comfortable home, exposed to the elements, I am just another creature of the woods. But I am also drawn to stability, roots, family, and community. I see the value and joy of long-term relationships and friendships. I have found my identity and place among my adopted community, my husband’s childhood home. Sometimes we have to leave to realize we had found our home, and then return- grateful to be accepted and welcomed back. Some keep moving in search of the elusive, the opportunity, drawn to the thrill rather than the familiar. Others know their place and never need to search. May we all find our peace and place of belonging.