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Personal essays

Extended Family - Essay from Newsletter 82

A lifetime together

The four families

I grew up in a small college town.

It was so small that if every one of them had gone to watch the Browns get embarrassed last weekend, it wouldn’t have filled the dog pound.

Everywhere you went you bumped into people you knew. You couldn’t go anywhere without being seen.

My parents were part of many circles that were important to them - and one of them was the four families.

As far back as I can remember, the families gathered for potlucks and picnics. By the time I was in high school, two of the families lived across the street from each other and we lived down the block. The fourth family lived way across town - which was really just a mile away. We biked to their house, they biked to ours, or we met somewhere in between.

The dads were college professors who had started at around the same time and who had kids about the same ages. The moms were bright, strong, and opinionated - but this is a story about the dads.

Always teaching

The thing I remember about the dads is that they were engaged and engaging. They loved learning and delighted in teaching.

Even as a kid I remember listening to their stories and I also remember them asking us questions and listening to our answers. Sometimes it felt great - sometimes it felt as if we were being tested.

Every encounter was a chance to learn.

When I was in middle school, Norm (who was then Mr. Craig to me) showed me a lesson he taught his introductory Chemistry students.

He drew a line the long ways down the middle of a piece of paper. He drew hash marks at either end of the line and then carefully measured and drew another pair of hashmarks labeling one pair “2” and the other “3” both above and below the line. He creased the paper along the line and carefully tore it in half.

“We’re going to build a sliderule,” he said. He explained that sliderules are based on logarithms and asked if I could find where 6 should be.

I wasn’t really sure what to do. He explained that to multiply two numbers you added their logarithms. So I slid the top paper so the left hash mark was above the 2. Then below the 3 should be 6. Add the length of 2 to the length of 3 to get the length of 6. I made a mark and labeled it. I evened the two pieces up and labeled the 6 on the top too.

He said I should be able to use the same idea to find 4,8, and 9 as well. So I did.

He had to remind me that place values disappeared on the slide rule so 2 was the same as 20 or .2. The two ends were 1, 10, 100, or any power of ten. Then he asked me where 5 was.

With that prompt 5 was 10 divided by 2 so we take away the length of 2 from the right hashmark.

For 7, he said, we have to estimate. A good try is just a little to the left of 8 times 9.

That lesson was fifty years ago and I still remember it.


We visited Jeff’s family on the way to our sabbatical when I was 14. He was an American Historian who had a love of architecture. He walked our family through Harvard yard and paused when a tour of prospective students and their families came through.

The tour guide pointed to a building and told one story and pointed to a statue and told another.

I remember Jeff waiting until the tour moved on before quietly correcting both stories.

He always had a twinkle in his eye. I still remember his voice and I remember him always having time to talk to the kids at the gatherings of the four families.

All the parents did.

Kim and I went to Montreal for our honeymoon. Jeff had told us we had to visit the Mount Royal park that was planned by Frederick Law Olmsted - the same man who had been responsible for New York’s Central Park.

It’s hard to describe but these people were like part of a family. It’s not as if each family didn’t have their own cousins and relatives they would gather with - but this was like a second family.

I remember when Rick, Jeff’s soon to be son-in-law, came over to my parents house to sit and meet the family. It felt like a similar vibe to when I went over to meet Kim’s cousins before we got married.

It’s forty years later and one of the best things about not traveling so much is I get to meet Rick for coffee once a week.


Dick, also a chemistry professor, was the first to get me to top calling him “Mr.”.

I remember the twinkle in his eye as well as he would call out to me, “Danny boy, what’s new?”

Before Kim and I got married, the four families threw us their own wedding shower in Dick’s back yard so that they could meet Kim’s family. By then they’d all met Kim but they wanted to meet her brother, sister, and parents.

I suppose without thinking of it I’d stolen the idea for my bachelor party and wedding location from Dick’s daughter Karen.

Like her, we’d had my bachelor party in the stands at Cleveland Stadium watching an afternoon baseball game.

Like her, I’d gotten married at Fairchild Chapel in Oberlin and then everyone walked over to the reception.

Karen’s youngest daughter was around Maggie’s age and when she was visiting, Dick and Dina would have Maggie over to play with their granddaughter the same way I’d gone over to spend time with their son Timothy decades before.

Back together

The four families retired to Kendal at Oberlin.

Sadly, Jeff died way too young and didn’t make that move, but the other four familes moved into cottages at Kendal and would see each other at meal times and other gatherings.

I would go out to see my parents and bump into so many people I knew. I’d go up to the salad bar and end up chatting with people in line and on the way there and back. There were a ton of new people there - but there was also people who had known me all of my life.

My dad spent his last year in the care center.

Just before he died, Timothy was in town visiting his parents and he asked to visit my dad. I’m not sure what my dad knew by then but her perked up as Timothy sat with us and talked to him.

There’s something about Timothy that is simultaneously a serious sixty-some year old who has seen things I can’t even imagine and that giggly ten year old I remember.

My dad died on April 15, 2019.

Recently I met my mom and sister for the unveiling of my dad’s gravestone.

It’s near Jeff’s stone.

As we walked away I stopped when I saw the stone of my first grade teacher.

Even here you can’t take a step without bumping into people you know.

Norm died a year after my dad.

Dick died this weekend.

The last of the dads.

The four moms are still alive - living in the same community.

The dads. Well in a way their back together too.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 82. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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