It was ten o’clock in the morning, but since it was Saturday, Howard Hall was still quiet, with many students sleeping in. I noticed that Marcus’ door was open as I walked past; I looked inside and waved.
“Hey, Greg,” Marcus said. “What’s up?”
“I’m gonna see my great-aunt and uncle today,” I explained. “They’re on their way here to pick me up.”
“Do they live near here?”
“Oh, that’s not too far. Like an hour away?”
“Not quite an hour, she said.”
“Well, have fun!”
“I will! Thanks!”
I sat outside Howard Hall, hoping that Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy knew how to find it; after all, it was 1997, the cell phones owned by only a tiny percentage of the population could not access the Internet, and no one had a GPS in the car. But I had given detailed directions, and they had suggested that they knew their way around Grandvale, at least the major streets and landmarks. Auntie Dorothy had called me earlier this week to plan this visit; I was expecting to hear from her at some point during my summer in Grandvale.
I also hoped that I remembered what they looked like, and that there were no senior citizen couples roaming the Grandvale State campus that morning looking for naive university students to kidnap and sell into forced labor. I only remembered having met them twice. When I was 11, we went to Salem for a family reunion of my mother’s paternal relatives, the Weismanns, and they came to visit my grandparents when I was 14. Uncle Lenny Weismann was my grandfather’s younger brother, and I remembered the two of them looking alike, so I just needed to watch for someone who looked like Grandpa.
I had no trouble recognizing them when they arrived, and they had no trouble recognizing me either. “Greg?” Auntie Dorothy said after she rolled down the window. “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” I said, getting into the car.
“How are you?” Uncle Lenny asked.
“I’m doing okay,” I said.
“So what exactly is this program you’re in?”
“It’s a math research internship. Students from around the country apply to these programs held at different universities. I got into two of them, and the one at Grandvale State was the closer of the two. I’m working with a professor and two other students, they’re from two different parts of New York, and we’re studying quasi-Monte Carlo integration using low discrepancy sequences.” I paused, then continued explaining, hoping that I was assuming correctly that Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy did not know what quasi-Monte Carlo integration was. “Basically, we’re looking at ways to do certain calculations that can’t be calculated directly, and studying how accurate and efficient these approximation methods are.”
“Oh, ok,” Auntie Dorothy said. “That sounds interesting.”
We continued to make small talk for the fifty-minute drive from Grandvale to Salem, driving past the green rolling hills and farmland of the Willamette Valley. Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy told me about their children and grandchildren, whom I did not know. I had met some of them at the family reunion in Salem, but that was nine years ago now. I told them about everything that happened to me in the last several months back in Jeromeville, including performing with University Chorus, my trip to Urbana, working with the youth group at church, and assisting in a high school classroom.
“A classroom,” Auntie Dorothy repeated. “You’re thinking of being a teacher?”
“Well, that’s part of the reason I’m here this summer,” I explained. “Trying to figure out if I’d rather go into teaching or math research.”
“What kind of work would you do with math research?”
“Get a Ph.D. and be a professor, proving new theorems and making new discoveries. Probably also teaching university students and mentoring future Ph.D. candidates.”
“I see. I could see you being good at either of those.”
When we got to Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy’s house, Auntie Dorothy made sandwiches for all three of us. “Do you remember those comic books you used to draw the last time we saw you?”
“Yes!” I said. “I stopped doing those around the time I started college. I just didn’t have time anymore. But then last summer I was teaching myself to make websites, and I started a new series, kind of like an online comic book. It’s called Dog Crap and Vince. Can you get the Internet here?”
“We have America Online. Will that work?”
“I’ll go turn on the computer when I’m done eating, and you can show me.” After we finished our sandwiches, I followed Auntie Dorothy to the computer, which whistled and hummed and buzzed as it connected to the Internet through telephone lines. I opened my Dog Crap and Vince website for Auntie Dorothy, with Uncle Lenny watching from behind. “‘Six-O-Five Productions presents Dog Crap and Vince,’” Auntie Dorothy read. “That’s you? Why is it called ‘Six-O-Five Productions?’”
“I always abbreviate Dog Crap and Vince as ‘DCV,’” I explained. “And DCV is also Roman numerals for 605.”
“That’s clever.” Auntie Dorothy clicked through the site and read the illustrated story out loud, so that Uncle Lenny could hear also. “So this guy is named Dog Crap, and this is Vince? Why is his name Dog Crap?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted something silly.”
“And why is their hair like that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never explained their hair. Just kind of random and bizarre.”
Auntie Dorothy continued reading the most recent episode of Dog Crap and Vince, called “What’s Cooking,” which I had written and drawn during study breaks while preparing for finals last month. The two boys kept making a bigger and bigger mess in an ill-fated attempt to bake cookies, while Vince kept getting catchy and annoying songs stuck in his head.
“That was good,” Auntie Dorothy said.
“There are seven other episodes you can read later,” I said. “You can email me, and I’ll send you the link so you don’t lose it.”
“Greg?” Uncle Lenny asked. “Have you ever been to Salem before?”
“Just that one time when I was eleven, when we had the family reunion here. But all I saw was your house and the park where we had the reunion.”
“We were talking earlier,” Auntie Dorothy said. “Would you like to take the tour of the Oregon State Capitol?”
“Sure,” I said. “That’ll be interesting.”
Auntie Dorothy and Uncle Lenny lived in an older neighborhood only about a mile from the Capitol, so it did not take us long to get there. From the outside, the building looked different from what I expected a Capitol Building to look like; a cylindrical structure stood in the center where I expected a dome to be, with a gold statue on top.
“We don’t have a dome,” Uncle Lenny explained, noticing me looking at the statue. “We have a pioneer instead.”
We bought three tickets for the tour and walked inside. A tour guide showed us around the building, explaining what function of state government happened inside each part of the building. She also pointed out the artwork in the different parts of the building and explained the stories from the history, culture, and state symbols of Oregon that the artwork depicted. At one point, I told Auntie Dorothy, “I was just thinking, it’s kind of funny, I’ve toured the Oregon State Capitol, but I’ve never been inside my own state capitol building. And it’s only 15 miles from Jeromeville.”
“Well, then, you’ll just have to go tour there sometime,” she replied. (I did eventually, but not for another nine years.)
After the tour, Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy brought me back to their house for more catching up and small talk. At one point, Auntie Dorothy asked, “You said you volunteer with a church youth group? This is a Catholic church?”
“No, actually,” I said, a little hesitantly because I never knew how my mother’s Catholic relatives would react to my recent faith journey. “A couple years ago, I started going to a nondenominational Christian group on campus with some friends. That’s where I really learned what it means to follow Jesus. But I kept going to Mass at the Newman Center, because I didn’t want to turn my back on Catholicism. The different branches of Chrsitianity have a lot more in common than the little things they argue about. I realized that a lot of students at Newman weren’t really serious about what they believed, they only went to church because it was part of their culture. I wanted to learn more about Jesus and the Bible, so I tried my friends’ church.”
“What kind of church is it?”
“Evangelical Covenant. They believe in the Bible but don’t make a lot of statements about doctrine besides the basics about Jesus dying for our sins and coming back someday. I’ve heard someone say they’re almost like a non-denominational church. And in Grandvale, I’ve been going to a Baptist church, just because they’re close to campus and I don’t have a way to get around.”
“God always finds a way to reach those who seek him,” Uncle Lenny said. The Weismanns had always been Catholic; even before they came to the United States, in the German-speaking world not far from where the Protestant Reformation began, the Weismanns were Catholic. Uncle Lenny and Grandpa had two sisters who were Catholic nuns. So I was relieved that I was not about to ignite an argument of Catholicism versus Protestantism.
Late in the afternoon, we returned to Grandvale and stopped at the grocery store before they dropped me off at Howard Hall. When Auntie Dorothy called earlier in the week, she asked if I wanted to go grocery shopping, knowing that I had no car; I of course said yes. It was definitely one of the more pleasant days of my stay in Grandvale. My grandparents both came from large families, so my mother grew up with many aunts and uncles on each side. Five years ago, the time I gave Auntie Dorothy my comic books, I remember Mom saying that Auntie Dorothy was always her favorite aunt, because she was always so interested in whatever Mom was into. I had noticed the same thing, five years ago with the comic books, and now today with Dog Crap and Vince. And now I had their email, so we could plan another visit later in the summer. “Thank you for everything,” I said, lifting my groceries out of the trunk outside of Howard Hall.
“You’re welcome. It was good seeing you, Greg,” Uncle Lenny said, shaking my hand.
“We’ll see you soon,” Auntie Dorothy added, giving me a hug.
“Yes. Take care.”
The next afternoon, after I finished a sandwich made from bread I got at the store with Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy, I sat at the desk in my room and took a deep breath. I picked up the telephone handset, then hung up before I dialed. Why was this so difficult for me? Why could I not just use the phone like a normal person? I took a deep breath and lifted the handset again, then hung up quickly. I was being ridiculous. It wasn’t like I was calling a cute girl and I did not know if she liked me or not. It was a guy on the other end, and he was not going to judge me for calling him, especially since he told me I could in his last letter.
But was this his own phone? Or was this a number that he shared with the people he was with? Why did it matter? The other people had no idea who I was, and I would probably never see or talk to them again. As I had done so often when making phone calls, I picked up the handset again and dialed the eleven digits needed for a long distance call quickly before I had time to talk myself out of it.
“Hello?” I heard a familiar voice say on the other end.
“Taylor?” I asked.
“Greg!” Taylor replied enthusiastically. “What’s up, man?”
“Not much,” I said. “It’s Sunday, so I’m taking the day off from math. I have relatives who live not too far from here; I saw them yesterday.”
“Oh, that’s good that you got to see family. Who was it that you got to see?”
“My great-aunt and uncle. My grandpa’s younger brother, and his wife.”
“Oh, ok. What’d you guys do?”
“We just hung out and caught up. They also took me to see the tour of the Oregon State Capitol, and we went grocery shopping.
“Nice! Was the State Capitol interesting?”
“Yeah,” I said. I told him about the pioneer statue and the lack of a dome, as well as what I remembered from the artwork inside.
“How’s your research going?” Taylor asked. I explained quasi-Monte Carlo integration to Taylor using similar layperson’s terms that I had used with Auntie Dorothy yesterday. “Interesting,” he said. “And where would that be practical?”
“Anywhere you’d need to calculate an integral,” I explained. “Areas and volumes of curved surfaces. An average value of a set that isn’t just a finite number of things you can add and divide. Measurements that involve multiplying, but one of the terms isn’t constant, like distance equals speed times time, so you’d need integrals if the speed is changing.” Integrals were taught in calculus; I could not remember if Taylor had ever taken calculus. “What I’m doing gives an efficient algorithm for approximating integrals that can’t be calculated directly.”
“Oh, ok,” Taylor replied. I could not tell how much of that made sense to him.
“How’s your summer going?”
“It’s a lot of work. I’ve been here since March now, and I’m getting tired. I’ve been sleeping more than I usually do.”
“Sleep is good if you’re tired, I guess.”
“Yeah. But I’m ready to go home.”
“Me too,” I said. “I’m not even halfway through the program here, and I feel like I’m already counting down the days left. It’s 33.”
“You don’t like math research?”
“It’s okay, but it’s not as interesting as I thought it would be,” I said. “And I really miss everyone back home. I don’t have a lot in common with the other students in the program.”
“Oh yeah? Why do you say that?”
“Mostly because they aren’t Christians, and they’re into partying and stuff. But there is one guy who really likes The Simpsons, so at least there’s that.”
“Nice,” Taylor said. “Have you found a church or anything like that?”
“I’ve been going to a church right across the street from campus, and they have a college and young adult Bible study. I only see them once or twice a week, though. Better than nothing, though.”
“Yeah. But being around Christians all the time isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.”
“Oh yeah? Why do you say that?”
“I’m 20, I’m younger than average for the staff here, but I feel like I’m older spiritually than most of them. I’ve been through a lot in life. I’ve been on a mission trip to Morocco. I’ve been a youth group leader for a long time. I’ve just had different life experiences. And when I can sympathize, I sometimes I have to tell myself not to step in with advice, because I don’t want to sound like a young know-it-all. And the kids that we’re here to work with, new groups come and go every week, so it’s hard to bond with them.”
“That makes sense. Hopefully you can find common ground with the other staff.”
“Yeah. And hopefully you do with the other math students.”
“Yeah. Emily, she’s working on the same project I am, a few nights ago we were all in her room playing Skip-Bo. She brought a Skip-Bo game with her. I hadn’t played that in years; I used to play that with my mom and grandma when I was a kid. That was fun.”
“Nice! I’ve played that, but it was a long time ago. Hey, did I tell you I went to a Chicago Cubs game last month?”
“I don’t think so. That’s fun!”
“Yeah! The first interleague game in Cubs history, against Milwaukee. The Cubs lost.”
“Wow. You got to see history. It’s still kind of weird to me to think that National League teams are playing against American League teams now. But exciting too, you get to see new team combinations.”
“Yeah. It’s interesting to see if this will stay a part of baseball.”
“I haven’t really been following baseball,” I said.
“Well, there isn’t a Major League team in Oregon, so it’s a little harder to follow there.”
“Yeah, that’s true.” I had actually stopped following Major League Baseball three years earlier, when the last two months of the season were canceled because of a players’ strike, denying one of my favorite players the chance to chase the single season home run record. My frustration at that situation had died down a little over the last few years. I knew about the rule change that National League teams would now play against some American League teams each year. In hindsight, it was ironic that the historic Cubs game Taylor saw was against Milwaukee, because the following season, Milwaukee would move from the American League to the National League and play against the Cubs every year.
After catching up a while longer, Taylor asked, “Are you going straight back to Jeromeville after your program is over?”
“I’ll spend the rest of August with my family, then go back August 31 to finish moving out of the old apartment and into the new one.”
“Are you going to the youth leaders’ retreat in September?”
“Yes. I’ll be coming right from JCF Outreach Camp. Two retreats back to back.”
“Yeah, but I’m not doing anything else the week before school starts.”
“That’s true. I should get going now, but I’ll see you at the retreat, if I don’t see you before then.”
“Yeah!” I replied. “It was good talking to you!”
“Thanks for calling! It’s good to hear a familiar voice.”
“Yeah. Good night.”
“Good night, Greg.”
I hung up. It was a little comforting to know that I was not the only one away from home and unable to connect with colleagues. Taylor’s situation was different, of course, but he was away from home too. I had thirty-three days left in this metaphorical wilderness of mathematics. I knew that the Bible had several examples of people being lost in a wilderness for an extended period of time. God always gave his people what they needed to get through that time, and these exiles in the wilderness always served some higher purpose.
I had Uncle Lenny and Auntie Dorothy not far away, though. I normally thought of my Dennison relatives as distant and my Santini relatives, my mother’s maternal family, as a bunch of overly dramatic busybodies. But Mom’s family also included the Weismanns, who were all very nice, from what I knew of them. I just did not see the Weismann relatives as often I saw the Dennisons or Santinis. But my day with the Weismanns yesterday, as well as the phone call with Taylor today, certainly helped this weekend feel less lonely.
Readers, what are your extended families like?