Wonder and loss

white building on brackbill farm against the sky, lancaster

It was good to see my extended family over the last two days, but sad as well. My great-uncle Hershey Brackbill passed away on Saturday. What was originally going to be just another annual family reunion turned into a commemoration of Hershey.

To back up: My grandfather had eleven brothers and sisters, of whom all but two survived to adulthood. For many years the ten remaining siblings, even after the passing of my great grandfather Harry, have brought the family together summer after summer, and the part of the family that stayed in Lancaster County (virtually everyone in that generation and most of their children) formed a tight knit extended family.

But recently the family has been thinning. After the second church service this morning I walked with Esta down the hill to pay respects to my grandmother. On the way I passed the markers of Hershey’s brother Jake, who died earlier this year, and Florence, who passed away several years ago. I also passed Hershey’s tombstone, which he will share with his first wife Jane; his stone was awaiting his final date. So the family is coming together in a corner of the cemetery at Leacock Presbyterian.

Fortunately the living family was able to come together in a more substantial tribute this morning. My second cousin Don Brackbill got a chorus of eleven Brackbill men, whether by blood or marriage, to sing an anthem at both Sunday services—in the Old Leacock church, which dates back to 1750 and is as historic as it is sweltering on an August morning, and the “new” Leacock church, which is probably close to 100 years old and is the one that was a block and a half down Route 30 from my grandparents’ home when I was growing up. The music was nice, the theology—the wonder of God’s love—somewhat better.

After services we all headed to the picnic, where my mother decided it was time for a changing of the guard and had me lead the family in the singing of the doxology (something my father or my cousin Lee would have otherwise done) and my sister the seminarian, as the most ecclesiastical person there, lead the prayer. Given how rarely I can spend time with the family, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable leading the song, which may have been the point for all I know, but it felt like a passing of the torch anyway.

And who is grabbing it? My mother’s generation, with a few exceptions, stayed pretty close to Lancaster and the rest of the family. My generation? One of my cousins is close by but the other is in Puerto Rico; other cousins were getting married in Michigan this weekend while another, my cousin Chris, lives on the west coast. As we spread further apart, the capacity of the yearly gatherings in Lancaster to keep the family bonds together is likely to strain.

There are solutions, I think, but I’m too tired to chase them tonight. Instead, I’ll close with an assortment of photos from the day. They won’t win any awards, but at least the resolution is higher than my last batch of Lancaster County photos.

Notes from the train

Written Saturday afternoon as I rode south from Boston:

I’m on the Acela, a few minutes outside New Haven. The car is filling up, but I have no seat companion as yet. The sun was out as we traveled along the Atlantic coast in Rhode Island and the early part of Connecticut, and it was as though we skimmed just above the surface of the water as we crossed coastal inlets and rivers. We’re inland now, and the scenery is, in that peculiar Northeast way, uglier; where there is no trash along the tracks, there are industrial parking lots or brown bracken covered banks. But there are still plots of wetlands here and there among the parked tanker trucks and huddled subdivisions, their backs to the train.

Part of the feeling of coasting is the inexpensive pair of noise cancelling headphones I picked up on my last trip to San Francisco. I’m trying to keep up my policy of listening at least once to every new track I add to my iTunes library, so my iPod is full of enormous lossless copies of various classical and jazz tracks. At the moment it’s the Keller Quartet’s string version of The Art of the Fugue.

In fact, the only thing missing at present is an Internet connection. At the speed we’re moving, no open networks stay accessible long enough to permit a WiFi connection. It’s kind of fun seeing the names of some of the secured ones, though, such as the thoughfully named “Honeypot”. It’s also nice, frankly, just being able to use the laptop, something that becomes just about impossible with the less generously proportioned seats in coach on the airplane.