A Good Gathering of Cousins

From left, Teri, Kayleen (3rd cousin), Stephie (2nd), Judy (1st), and Pammie (2nd).

I’ve been back from Montana for a week or two and it just occurred to me that I didn’t tell you about my recent journey north (except if you count my story about finding Baby Jackie). In short, the whole thing was uniformly exceptional – the road trip was excellent, our Miller family spontaneous cousins-only reunion was stellar, and I even encountered another unusual pizza while there. More about that pizza another time.

“Mom and Pammie are flying up to Kalispell from Denver on the 26th,” cousin Stephie emailed on Tuesday night. “Wouldn’t it be a kick if you came up too?”

Miller women from left, Betty, their mother Maude (Nana), and Rosemary.

Indeed. For context, Judy is my mother’s niece, my first cousin. Stephie and Pammie are seconds, and their children and grandchildren are thirds and fourths. Neither of our parents (together with another aunt we call the Miller Women) are still living.

With the exception of a few cousins who were invited to the reunion and sent their regrets or didn’t respond at all, we’re the core of those who remain, yet none of us is a Miller by blood. Both Judy and I were adopted, though our mothers would have fought anyone to the death for suggesting as much. My maternal cousins (Millers) are not the same as my paternal cousins (Torells) though both have featured into this Montana journey. Confused much?

Another strong Miller sister – one of the three, Margie, with Judy and Uncle Fritz.

Stephie and her family have lived in Northern Montana for almost twenty years. She possesses what is sometimes called the gift of hospitality. I’d be crazy to refuse her invitation, I told the Professor. Besides, the last time we first and second cousins were all together- as near as I remember – was at least 30 years ago. And after a summer of 100+ degree days and forest fires in the West, the thought of spending a few days in Northern Montana sounded heavenly. The Professor agreed so on Thursday I lit out for big sky country with its beautiful landscapes and our overdue gathering of a handful of Miller cousins.

The drive would take over nine hours going and nine hours coming back. It was worth every minute, every mile in the car. I like to think of the trip as two Audible books in length with a whole lot of pretty scenery thrown in for good measure. The books I downloaded were The Year of Magical Thinking written by Joan Didion and narrated by Vanessa Redgrave (how had I never read that book before?!), and appropriately, Wanderlust, by Elizabeth Eaves. I do love to ramble.

My mind was not often distracted from Didion’s account of the year she lost both husband and daughter and how she made sense of it all. The second book, Wanderlust, is of the travel adventure/escapism genre. It’s the story of a young woman who was compelled to leave her childhood home in Seattle to experience more from life via international travel. I had a difficult time reconciling the relational costs she inflicted on her besotted suitors to indulge herself. That said, it was a reasonably engaging and well written tale. The miles passed swiftly and painlessly enough in the company of these stories.

Nana, my maternal grandmother Maude, raised three strong Miller women. My mother, a talented disciplinarian herself, said Nana could mete out quite the tongue lashing.

The first leg of my journey led from Boise to Smith’s Ferry to McCall to Riggins to Grangeville to Kooskia. Treeless, scrubby high desert foothills gave way to steep and stunning river valleys, dense forests, and the occasional vast green meadow. Smoke from Idaho fires stung my eyes and stuffed my sinuses. Summer vacation travelers were mostly back home, leaving the sinuous two-lane highway to road crews, random people crossing the highway to retrieve their mail from boxes, fly fishermen hip deep in rushing waters, and me.

It was still summer then. Though they would begin within days, the trees had not yet started to drop their leaves or even to turn. I wished I had the time to stop, sit on the rocks, and dip my feet in the waters of the Payette, the Little and main Salmon, the Clearwater, and especially the Wild and Scenic Lochsa. All of them. But I didn’t. Have time that is, or stop.

One of the last times I traversed this stretch the Professor and I were almost stranded in deep snow without chains. We were alone in the wild. The road had been closed behind us we later learned, and we barely made it across from Lolo to Lewiston. Thankfully there was no snow on this trip.

After reaching the summit on the Idaho/Montana border, I passed through Lolo Hot Springs where my parents used to stop to break up a long trip to visit the folks, letting us burn off energy before we got to Missoula where we would be expected to toe my grandmother’s unyielding line. A wrangler walked a string of surprisingly good looking bay horses back to pasture after a day of carrying dudes that I suspected rode like shifting great sacks of potatoes. Lolo Hot Springs was also where my great grandfather helped build the hotel made famous in the movie A River Runs Through It.

I followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark down along Lolo Creek, a pretty little stream with grass overhanging its banks and lots of riparian cover for wildlife. It’s a small tributary of the Bitterroot River that shaped my as a child perception about how creeks should look and act. These days, I read, due to overdrafting, the Creek is often dry by the time it reaches the Bitterroot and has sediment issues where it does flow. Neither of these were evident the day of my journey. It was as beautiful as ever on the top end.

Margie, the 3rd strong Miller woman, with her father, my granddfather about whom I know little except tht he had went blind and couldn’t work. Nana was the breadwinner in the Milller family.

But not much further down a fire had consumed the forest for miles on both sides of the highway – almost all the way down to Lolo. I’ll never again see it the way it was when we piled into an old red station wagon, picked up my grandparent’s friend Vic Miller at the trailer park in Lolo, and spent the day “up Lolo Crick”, picnicking, fly fishing, avoiding poison ivy, and swatting mosquitos. Sad.

Lolo is where my father’s parents worked in the lumber camp, Grampie repairing heavy equipment and Grammie, cooking for hungry loggers. She was well-known for her cooking. When they came to visit at Christmas she’d bring a small suitcase-sized tin filled with ginger cookies, Swedish fatigmans, peanut brittle, fudge, and divinity. It went straight into the deep freeze where I raided it often.

I thought about these things as I drove down Lolo Creek into the Bitterroot Valley.

Lolo is unrecognizable. The truck stop is no longer named Tripps and I couldn’t find the street they lived on. Commuter traffic is heavy on the four-lane all the way from Missoula to the end of the Valley, I’m told. And if Lolo is unrecognizable, Missoula is a place you just want to leave and quickly. Traffic. Strip malls. It’s a different town these days. I didn’t stop at the Rose Garden or drive past the old place on Brooks Street this time. Curiously, I no longer even wanted to.

Flathead Lake, as I remembered it.

About a hundred miles north of Missoula on Hwy 93, I reached Flathead Lake. My GPS routed me east of the lake where I saw beautiful country and beautiful homes – a handful of which had been recently reduced to twisted metal and ash in a fire that burned through the trees and down to the water. It hadn’t been out long. The smell of smoke still hung above the highway and signs warned of fire camp traffic ahead.

Despite that, Flathead Lake is as beautiful as it was when our family stayed with Grampie and Grammie in a friend’s primitive cabin tucked in behind the trees and next to the Lake. There was a long dock out over the water where my brother cast a fishing line at cousin Kurt (in a fit of anger) that could only be extracted from his cheek at the hospital. Where I wooed and won over a paint mare in the green meadow next to the cabin. She let me ride her through the meadow above the lake. Where we dove in clear, cold water, surfacing quickly with high-pitched screams, gasping for air.

I was told that the Veterans Club in Columbia Falls is the best place to buy eggs. And drinks. I think our Moscow Mules were better. From left, Judy, Pam, Kayleen (3rd), Mikayla (3rd), and Stephie.

I arrived at Stephie’s house in Columbia Falls at dusk. She hadn’t gotten my email telling her I was coming, although I had called Judy to let her know. Neither Stephie nor her sister expected me. It was a delicious surprise. There were squeals and tears. Some of them mine.

We were two first cousins, three second cousins, four third cousins, four fourth cousins and assorted patient and tolerant spouses. There wasn’t much room in the conversations for them and eventually they stopped trying. We sat outside by the crackling fire until late on a crisp black velvet Montana night, drinking red wine and Moscow Mules.

No longer willing to contain them, we spilled every family secret we possessed trying to make sense of our complicated and shared history. In a way, our larger family’s current condition mirrors what I experienced on the journey north: all kinds of memories about the way we were, moments of beauty interspersed with change and in places, decay and ruin.

Here’s to a remnant of cousins. Strong women in our own right.

Like Norman Maclean observed, we cousins are surrounded by the voices and memories of those we loved but did not fully understand: the Miller Women. Long gone now, their ghosts remain, still seeking to bind us to long ago pledges of silence and family loyalty. Would they approve of us today? Probably not, but we are reconciled to that. We no longer entertain their secrets.

That night in Montana and the next few nights with my cousins more than any beautiful mountain pass, any glorious river or well-written book, this is why I went. To be among this small gathering of cousins. Our remnant – adopted descendants of strong and secretive Miller women, two of whom coldn’t bear their own children – was there to be together. To get to know ourselves better, and to understand those we knew yet did not really know.

None of us cousins have any idea when next we’ll meet again though I’ve promised I’ll come to Denver this fall. In the meantime, I won’t soon forget either the journey or the feeling of being gathered to, and of gathering with my people, my cousins, in Montana.

We keep our own secrets now. May it not be another 30 years until the next good gathering.

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