Our family received an extra gift in time to welcome the New Year, one that gave us more than we expected. It came, like Christmas in Whoville, without ribbons, tags, boxes or bags – unless you count the luggage. There was a fair amount of that.
All three of our children were with us for Christmas, a gift we no longer take for granted. Then, after Christmas, we were reunited with two families from a previous assignment – and all their children.
These families were assigned with us at Ramstein AB, Germany, just a few years ago. In those days we gathered often with several other families for Sunday lunch after chapel services, for cross country meets and football games, for birthdays, graduations or for no particular reason except that we enjoyed being together. We celebrated holidays and helped one another through deployment, illness and loss.
By military fiat, two of our families are now stationed together in Virginia. By invitation, another family came here to visit, and by some miracle, every one of our combined eight children came too. The “children” range in age from 16 to 30 and traveled from Texas, Colorado, California and Slovenia to be here, so it was no small miracle that brought us all together.
In the days leading up to the visit, I wondered how all the kids would react to being together again. In young lives, even a few years make a big difference. They’ve each gone in different directions, to different schools, careers, states and countries. Would they take up where they left off or would they feel uncomfortable and strange?
I needn’t have worried. Their divergent lives converged once again over movies, meals and games. They exchanged old stories and the latest news from mutual friends past and present. They compared notes about college roommates, friends and classes. They rediscovered similar tastes in art and music.
I overheard part of a conversation between two of the kids one day. They were sharing their common experience of coming home from college to a place that’s never really been “home,” except that their parents live there. All the familiar furniture and holiday decorations are assembled in a house that’s home and yet it’s not.
“So, you know what it’s like,” my daughter said to her friend, and I heard relief in her voice. There’s comfort in being with someone who knows what it’s like, who needs no explanation of the nuances, the lingering effects of living a transitory life.
When it’s time to move or to say good-bye to friends who are moving, we military families usually have an instinct about those we will see again, the friends we’ll stop and see when driving cross-country, the ones we’ll drive across the country to see. In military life, our deepest friendships don’t depend solely on geography, and they don’t end with proximity. When we make friends for life, they remain a part of our family’s story as surely as if they still lived around the corner.
Good friends are forever. Goodbyes are not. Old acquaintance might not be forgotten, but some experiences can’t be recreated. What we truly relinquish with each move is a sense of place, the combination of friends and location we’ll likely never experience again. We may be stationed with the same families occasionally. We might return to an assignment and even meet familiar faces there but when a chapter ends, its pages can’t be turned back.
In this time with our friends, though, we came close. Plenty of planning went into the event, but the atmosphere was serendipitous. There was an unexpected element – one we couldn’t orchestrate – of auld lang syne.
We had a birthday party, went shopping, sat by the fire, did some sightseeing, watched a little football. Everyone ate and talked and laughed – a lot. The girls went for manis and pedis. The dads explored a local bike trail. The boys preferred skateboards and video games. One night we went out for German food. Then we rang in the New Year with old friends and new ones. It was a microcosm of our friendship, compressed into less than a week of celebrating.
During those days we were treated to shining glimpses of happy memories, yet we weren’t reliving the glory days. We were making new memories, realizing our past relationships could also bear fruit in the present.
“It was nice to be with people we know,” said my daughter, the day after everyone left. We know a lot of people, but I knew exactly what she meant.
This was the truest gift of the time we spent together: to be with those who not only know us, but who have known us. They are part of our family’s history, our ongoing story. These are gifts that go beyond the same auld lang syne.