©2023 Robert Sickles
A few years ago, I went to New Jersey for my high school reunion. It was the first one I’ve ever attended, the 50th for Morris Knolls Class of ’68. It was wonderful to see many of my friends and learn about their interesting lives and talents. I also had great conversations with people I didn’t really know very well in school.
In recent years, Linda and I socialized with a couple of my school friends who'd moved to the Seattle area, but I’d had very little contact with all the others. At the reunion breakfast the first morning, I crept up on Rick who was my young pal even way back in grade school. He turned, looked at me for a couple of seconds and smiled, “Bobby?” Oh wow, I guess I haven’t changed a bit!
Later, I sat at a table with my wife Linda on my right and my high school girlfriend Peg on my left. No, not weird at all… except when the two realized how they resemble each other. Oh my God! I was exposed. They could see I have a type! We all laughed, but for some reason I blushed and tried to slither under the table.
I was present during a couple of the meetings at our house when Linda was on the organizing committee for one of her high school reunions. Their challenge was tracking down everyone from the class and getting as much updated information as possible. That was pre-internet, of course. The gung-ho committee members were truly puzzled: “Why doesn’t everyone want to sign up for our reunion, or at least get their contact info into the directory so we can stay in touch?”
I thought to myself “There’s tunnel vision for you. I can understand wondering whatever happened to so-and-so, but to assume that everyone had a great high school experience, or achieved what they were voted most likely to... I could think of a lot of reasons why someone wouldn’t want classmates to see who they'd become or hadn’t become decades later. And then there’s the guy who’s blissed out in his off-grid life in a Bali beach hut. I think it’d be fair to let him be.”
I guess I shied away from earlier reunions because of their renown for the ego-saturated atmosphere. I’ve always heard that a 10 year is all about looking as hot or hotter than at 18, and checking out who was still single; the 20th is where you brag about golf game, your acquisitions and career, and wondering who's single again; the 30 or 40th is about having it all figured out and what prestige your kids/grandkids have achieved, and how eager to work forever or how ready for retirement you'll be.
I saved myself for the 50th, expecting by the age of 68, fewer of us would be concerned with our aged appearance and fitting into the same pants size as when we were 18. Our children’s soccer trophies are dusty in the attic, and we either owned an island, owned a vacation home on an island, rented one from VRBO, or saw a picture of one once in an AARP magazine—it didn’t matter much. Anyway, I had a very good time that weekend and am thankful to all the people who contributed to making it happen. Some of my classmates are reading this right now—Go Eagles!
As a graphic artist, I’ve had fun designing memory books and promotional material for some of my clients’ class and family reunions, and the idea of reuniting does resonate deeply with me. I guess it’s in my nature to abhor a vacuum! I have witnessed or participated in a few that resulted in great healing… and gave me something to write about!
I was visiting Dad in California after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I asked if he’d spoken to Uncle Richard about it. “No, Bob, Richard and I haven’t spoken in over 15 years.” That was puzzling to me, so I wondered if something happened to cause a rift between the brothers. Dad continued, “Honestly, I can’t think of what that might have been. Maybe I’m just forgetful, or maybe it was nothing, but we just stopped talking, and I regret that.”
I thought, “Jeez, Dad, pick up the phone.” But I could tell he was afraid or stubborn about contacting Uncle Richard, and probably of the old mindset that cancer is a shameful thing to burden on your family. So I wrote a letter to my uncle, letting him know that Dad was dying—and that he really wanted to reconnect with his only brother. A week or so after I was back home in Seattle, I learned that the effect was perfect, Richard had made the first call. He and my father wrote and had several conversations before Dad passed. A wonderful side effect was that Richard’s son, my cousin Carroll whom I hadn’t seen since we were kids, was moved to thank me for bringing our fathers together. Carroll and I have been writing and calling ever since.
My friend/business partner Ken was estranged from his parents. It was a very complex thing, his anger for them was always there but became more intense when he recalled buried memories, the dark kind. He told me of their neglect and emotional abuse, and then they refused to talk about it when he confronted them. Years of harboring disgust and rage had resulted in Ken’s state of poor mental and physical health. I merely suggested that it might be good for his health and happiness to try forgiveness. I made my point to him, “Living with poisonous hatred in your heart is not living.” I continued with words to the effect “Forgiving them doesn’t mean changing your memory of what happened, but rather how you react to it now. The benefits for you are freedom and peace—who doesn’t want that?”
Ken reacted with disgust, no way could he ever think of forgiving his parents. He cut me off mid-sentence and told me I should drop it.
I grieved for what happened to Ken when he was a boy, and I hurt for what was still happening to him. I couldn’t help myself, I had to do something before his health plummeted. I looked up his parents’ phone number and talked with his mother, explaining my position as go-between on behalf of family peace. She seemed willing to have some kind of conversation with Ken. When I reported this to him, I could see a glint of light in Ken's eyes. A few weeks later, he came to my door and presented a sealed letter addressed to Mom and Dad, asking me to deliver it. “But I don’t even want to know their address or talk to them, not yet anyway.” he said.
It turned out that the letter did more to vent his grievances than to mend their relationship, but I saw evidence that it helped relieve some of Ken’s torment. If not achieving forgiveness, at least he found clarity and got something off his chest. After Ken passed away, I was calmed by the thought that he had made an effort and in some plane of existence, they all could rest in peace.
Weehawken, NJ, October 2018
My Rediscovered Family
My sister Janet died in her thirties, an unhappy woman with mental health issues, using suicide as an escape from her confusion and fear. She left my family to deal with our grief, and we did it poorly, mostly in shame and silence.
Increasingly, Janet's life had become a turmoil of paranoia and moods swinging from grandiose to melancholic. I don't think she was ever diagnosed. Mom and Dad had no tools to deal with her mental illness and were exasperated with bailing her out and trying to reason with her thinking and life choices. Long after she died, I think each of us was stuck in denial or doubt. I lived with a viscous cycle of questions: Why didn’t she ask for help? Why did she do that to us? Who can we blame?
Janet had given up her two young children to be raised by her ex-husband. He was remarried and living on the other side of the country. I believe she knew at some level: When your ship is sinking, you first put your children on a life raft.
In my rehashing of Janet’s death, I realized I wanted to reach out to my nephew and niece who were now close to 6o years old! Did they have questions about their mom? Did they remember that before their lives were uprooted, before the stuff hit the fan, we were all once a whole loving family? We lived near each other and participated in every family joy and setback. I put together a digital slide show of Dad's old 35mm photos to prove it to them and myself.
Finally, a long-awaited family reunion came to pass a few years ago when I was in New Jersey for my class of ’68 reunion. Whew, what a day!
One of the most incredible things in my life was hearing my beautiful 20-something grandniece ask “Are you Uncle Bob?” as she entered the restaurant where we were to meet. Moments later I was holding my nephew and niece and their families. The flood gates opened up for me as I saw so much of my sister’s beauty in their faces and hearts. I knew I was there to bring light. We later played my slideshow and there were tears and hugs all around.
In some future post I want to return to my sister’s story, I have more to say.
The Weenie Keepers
As a graphic designer, I was asked by an associate to create a logo years ago that was to be printed on T-shirts for a big family reunion. They needed my art pretty soon, as the shirts had to print and ship in less than two weeks! I never met the family and their names are unknown to me. I only knew that they were a big clan, mostly from Ohio and the Great Lakes states, and that they’d gathered annually for several decades. This was to be their 40th reunion and they wanted a lighthearted design for their group, whom had become known, peculiarly, as “The Weenie Keepers.” I thought I should know what the heck Weenie Keepers meant so I could design them a meaningful logo. The story unfolds:
In 1965, a few relatives—I’ll call them the Kreeger family—were having a backyard BBQ. Aunt Mary was at the grill cooking hot dogs. As the end of the day was approaching, she called out, “Hey everyone, there’s just one weenie left, anybody want it?”
No one spoke up until Uncle Ralph joked, “Just wrap it up and save it. Maybe we’ll do this again next year!” Well, Aunt Mary did just that, showing up with the year-old weenie wrapped in a napkin, again asking if anyone wanted it. It had become mummified, stored in a shoe box. Everyone was astonished that it still looked pretty good after a whole year. Aunt Mary put it back in box, and they dubbed her the Weenie Keeper.
Next year, same thing. And year after year, as the numbers of the family increased at the annual picnics, the weenie was presented and its story told for old time’s sake. One year, Aunt Mary was too ill to attend, so she handed the weenie to her nephew Ron. He became known as the 2nd Weenie Keeper. Cousin Fred declared that the weenie should be passed from generation to generation as a symbol of the family’s longevity…”
In 2005, the members of the clan were going to meet as usual and Grandma Jo, the 4th Weenie Keeper, would present the weenie, which now rested on a little satin cushion in a fancy plastic box. The organizers ordered 200 shirts in sizes Infant through 3XL with my design printed on the front.
Long live the Weenie Keepers—I relish the thought that they will muster and catch up at their 58th this summer!
Don’t judge me... this logo had to be fast & cheap. The font is named Frankfurter, by the way.