West of Woolwich: Baptised into the community of mankind, such as it is

Posted Wednesday, August 29, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: Baptised into the community of mankind, such as it is

by Fred Kahrl

As I observed my niece, Anita, being baptized recently, a question rose in my mind: “Why am I here?”

 The answers, and there were several, led me to a troubling question about how we value “community” in this Brave New World.

 First: The “answers” were, at first glance, traditional … though tinged by family tragedy.

I was there to “stand” in for my brother … Anita’s grandfather … not just because he had died of cancer, but perhaps more importantly because … even if he was still alive … he would have boycotted the christening, having estranged our family after coming out of rehab.

I was there also as witness for Anita’s grandmother, for whom the babe was named. One of the loveliest, kindest, most talented women I have been privileged to know, who was also claimed by cancer while her son and daughter were in their teens and my brother’s alcoholism was peaking. I was one of only two people present who had known Anita from when she and my brother first met. Will I live long enough to tell Anita about this wonderful woman?

The ceremony was on a lovely bluff overlooking the Kennebec River on land purchased by my other brother in 1972 as a hedge against the day that any of his children might want a place of their own in Maine. For 25 years … while his four children grew … I was resident caretaker on the land, and had invested countless hours of labor and love into restoring the old saltwater farm to its former luster and function. In that regard, I was there to represent that other brother, who dropped dead of sudden cardiac arrest at age 58, who would have otherwise been delighted and deeply touched had he been with us on that perfect August day.  

In fact, it struck me that, among other things, I was the oldest living blood relative to little Anita, whose inexhaustible good humor and bright-eyed curiosity sustained her throughout the ceremony, even when the cold water was dashed through her hair.

Anita had just celebrated her first birthday. Her twin brother, Alexander, had been baptized a few months ago in East Berlin with one of his father’s dearest friends presiding. Alexander’s father had grown up behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin and still had many friends and family in that reunited city, so that other baptism was also well-attended and, I believe, in a more traditional setting.

The twins’ parents have been living in Italy for the past ten years, on the edge of the forest that beards the foothills of the Alps. Dad’s office is in Turin; Mom teaches in Venice. Their work takes them all around Europe and back and forth across the Atlantic. The twins will have dual citizenship, and will be raised with Mom speaking English to them, their father speaking in German, and they will soon attend Italian public school. Çiao!

I will see them when they come to the vacation home their mother co-owns here in Maine with her brother (Who lives in London with his Irish/South African wife).

Having been something of a “Dutch Uncle” to my niece and nephew after my brother cut them out of his life, I like to think I am close to them. But this is not the sort of family geography where they drop over for my spaghetti on Sunday evenings, and then everyone settles down to cheer the Patriots.

I wish it were so.

But more and more families are facing a similar diaspora, with children and grandchildren spreading out across the country and even the world. My daughter’s family is firmly settled in Montana, my eldest son is basking in New Mexico, and my youngest son and his wife … who married on this same bluff a year ago … have just settled Down East and just had their first child. However, visiting them makes us slaves to the State ferry system and its limited schedule, so even they are farther away than the map suggests.

Frankly, I envy my friends whose families have ... more or less … settled close to home. I drive by their homes on summer evenings to see cars stacked up in the drive, kids shrieking happily in the pool, barbecue smoke curling around the corner of the house from the backyard. Or … more cars at Christmastime, the house decorated brightly and every window glowing with family festivity.

Fortunate they whose families are close enough to gather. And fortunate the communities where multiple generations of families reside, defining and maintaining both the strength and the identity of that special social entity.

Families are a key component of community-building, as are meaningful and supportive friendships. But the sad fact is that, just as families are more and more apt to disperse these days, the demographers tell us that we … that’s you and me … have fewer than half as many friends as our American forebears had in the 1950s.

And suggesting that social networking is the modern equivalent of true “friendship” would be laughable if it was not so tragic. No Facebook® “friend” is going to get out of bed on a blizzard night to come and pull me and my plow out of the ditch, etc. The very term is losing its true meaning.

Yes, there were both “friends” and “family” at the baptism, but only a few were “close”. By the time Labor Day has cooled off, all but 4 or 5 of the three dozen attending will still be here. “Summer People” and “Folks from Away.” Even so, they helped to fulfill the true purpose of the occasion … bearing witness to the expectation that they, as representatives of the greater community of mankind, accept the responsibility to help Anita’s parents protect, nurture and teach this little girl so that she will one day add her strength to the world that binds us together.

The question now is: How will we fulfill that promise in a world that is changing so fast?

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