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What is home anyway but a place that houses your people and/or the best of your memories?

But even when a home is filled with love and good intentions, sometimes finding peace in the moment remains so elusive.

How strange that we are just placed (born) into these family units with one another and, yet, our differences and our similarities make it so hard for us to get along day in and day out over the years. Familiarity brings challenges, even when we want to maintain that peace.

Our pasts together and personality quirks are so complicated. And then there are the circumstances into which we are born, ranging from simple birth order factors to the family’s mood at the time of our arrival. During hard times, war, illness, or following death, children still arrive. Life in a family is not easy, even in the best of times, but it’s all that any of us knows in our early years. But with any luck, we will continue to know family life throughout all our years, regardless of the challenges it brings us.

Despite my growing up with only my parents and one brother, I come from a large extended family. My past is filled from memories of Thanksgivings and Christmases and summer visits to my grandparents’ home—a home where all my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather in noisy groups—and in my dreams I still return to that mythical home where I gather once more with those people who were so important to who I am and who I became. Those sorts of dreams come also to my relatives in their sleep. This sense of home is definitely with us when we gather in other places, but we have never truly dreamed we could return to the house that cradled us and shaped us so.

That is we thought we could never return . . . until my cousin and her husband realized the dream of buying back the house that had passed from our family over 30 years ago.

After over a year of a whole lot of elbow grease, blood, sweat, tears, and money, the house is again the home of our dreams. When my cousin called us home to our recent Christmas in July reunion, the house—and our ability to gather together in it—was a present like no other.

I would love to tell you that the dream realized was all twinkly lights and laughter and hugs and songs sung in perfect harmony and moments captured in picture perfect clarity. It was all that and more, and, yet, as in any family, sour notes remain: sibling discord, marriages dissolved, children who won’t sleep, favoritism, regrets, and disagreements over shared history. What’s past is not often past.

The truth is I did leave swathed in a feeling not unlike the sunshine that streamed through the large windows or the peacefulness that came to me as I took in the bucolic views from those windows. I chose to feel the love—which is real and huge and something I know not everyone gets to feel in this life—and also chose to push away the cobwebs that lurked in the dark corners because I realize I am lucky enough that those cobwebs are only a small part of this thing called family in my life.

And, yet, my own home is also a microcosm of that larger family home. The love here is real and huge and something not everyone gets to experience. But sometimes the reality of who we are together and alone is simply too hard to bear. We forget that together we are the protection for one another from what happens outside our homes and instead project what others have done to us on those who love us most. And despite our best intentions, so often we cannot figure out how to be ourselves without hurting one another. In those moments our home becomes just another house.

The real dream of my grandparents’ house or my house or of any house will be that the house can be the peaceful space we can call home: that feeling that comes in those moments when family members forget or minimize any differences and just give into the love that binds us together.

Blest be the ties that bind our hearts and bring about fellowship of kindred minds—and remind us just why peace in our families—no matter how imperfect the peace or the family—is what really makes a house a home.


(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

A couple weekends ago we made our mostly annual trip to the Ritter Reunion, this year in Kearney, the town of my birth and the “big” town to the south of the farm where my mother was born. Other than the humidity, Kearney is a nice place to visit.

My mother was the impetus behind our family reunions, organizing our first getaway reunion at Ft. Robinson (Crawford, NE) in 1986. When people try to figure out the date, my brother Scott and I firmly remind them, as that was the only reunion pre-Lori and pre-Sherman—we would both meet our life-mates within months of that reunion.

So this was the first reunion ever without my mother, although last year’s reunion was one reunion too many for her. That reunion was a sober event in many ways for most in attendance. As shocked as our personal family was by how much she had lost in the six weeks following her hospitalization, my faraway cousins were more shocked. They had not witnessed the day-to-day losses over the previous year that would culminate in her permanent loss of independence less than a month after the gathering.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Mom and her sister took a different path from their brothers—they did not raise their families in the close-knit environment surrounding Pleasanton, the “little” town to the north of the farm. But my family lived close enough for us to return for holiday celebrations and other visits several times a year. My mother always loved to come home to her parents and the varying nieces and nephews running around the house in town—the home where her parents settled in retirement.

My father was raised an only child (his birth followed his only brother’s death) so family gatherings on his side were so quiet. In fact, even my dad craved coming to that home so often filled with noise and people. Our larger family gave him something of what he had enjoyed growing up in a town with his own cousins—and what was sorely missing in his adult years until he married into this family.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

We Ritters still fill the spaces with noise, even if there are no walls to contain that noise. Since I moved away from Nebraska, we almost always have to travel long hours to reach these reunions. After the quiet of the car, I am rarely ready for the chaos that will greet me when we first meet up with the family. That’s why I prefer to have a little extra time before we see everyone—and yet by the end, I am part of that noise and not ready to leave again.

Some of Mom’s proudest possessions have been her Ritter Reunion T-shirts so she has a new shirt in her drawer, complete with her name on it, along with those of her siblings.

It’s always difficult after there is an empty place at the reunion picnic table (miss you, too, Uncle Dale, Aunt Arlys, and Dad!) but there are new faces too, including Avery, a miracle whose chubby cheeks belie the scars on her chest from two heart surgeries, and Kai, my (step) nephew’s son (who for sure can’t have our blood because he sleeps like a dream—but we’re keeping him anyway!)

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

As we “mature” cousins circled up our lawn chairs around the two sleeping babes, the remaining first-tier siblings and other “mature” cousins chatted in the shelter, while the grade-school aged kids went to the swim beach and the teenaged kids played lawn games. My mom’s vision was reality—that we would not forget each other and from whence we came—no matter how far we roamed to make our homes.

The June rains painted the farmlands green (although some would say a little less water color would be in order—their grains weren’t going to grow well in fields that resembled rice paddies!) Even if it is true that some who used to come are no longer part of this world, our family continues green in growth. The cycle of life just makes more sense in the rural spaces where families still work with the earth to provide our food.

Just as it makes sense to return year after year to remember who I am in relation to my relations—past, current, and those yet to begin their own roles in this cycle.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

Ritters Jumping Rocklahoma '09 (c) CBL

Ritters Jumping Rocklahoma '09 (c) CBL

I don’t miss many family reunions, even though they usually require too much driving and don’t last long enough. I left Nebraska around twenty-five years ago, my brother moved to Oklahoma a couple years later, and then my parents followed me to Colorado about fourteen years ago. Various cousins have moved further east in Nebraska, while other cousins live in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, so I don’t have many other chances to see them.

That’s why Friday morning our family, including my mother, headed out bright and early to take I-70 across the eastern plains of Colorado and much of Kansas before turning south to continue toward Oklahoma. It wasn’t for the ten-hour drive through the middle of nowhere, that’s for sure.

But for a few hours, as the sky opened up after we left behind the city, I remembered that I was raised on the prairie. And this year, July was as green and beautiful as early June usually is. The huge horizon, where sky met green grasses, called me away from closed-in spaces.

However, I go to the reunions for more than the prairie. When I dream of childhood homes, I see my grandmother’s home more often than those others where I lived. That dream house is filled with people, just like it was at our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations from my youngest days.

I didn’t live in that town, but that house felt like home with all the relatives who stopped by whenever we visited. By the time I came around, my grandparents had lived in town for several years and my cousins’ stockings wrapped all the way around the huge fireplace mantle at Christmas. That mantle held school pictures of every one of us throughout the year.

Charles & Esther (Rodehorst) Ritter, Married 02/22/22

Charles & Esther (Rodehorst) Ritter, Married 02/22/22

My grandparents, Charles and Esther (Rodehorst) Ritter raised five children. My brother and I had nineteen cousins, as well as one we never knew who had left too soon but who was part of the family, nonetheless. Despite the order perpetuated by our strict German-American grandmother, our gatherings were full of story-telling, joking, movement, and energy, often with our grandmother in charge of the hijinks.

As all the cousins grew up, it became obvious many of us were moving too far away and getting too busy to continue the family holiday celebrations. I thank my mother for knowing enough to create this reunion tradition back in 1986, a few years before Granny or Grandma—we weren’t consistent in what we called her—died.

Almost twenty years after her death, our get-togethers are still much like that, regardless of who shows up. We are loud—so much so that it always takes me a while to acclimate to the crowd after a long day on the road. Yes, somebody is going to do something with the precision of our German forbears, whether it’s playing a game just so, organizing the meals and activities, or taking a group photo. On the other hand, several of us are a combination of precision and chaos—like me, the one who separated the T-shirts by family group, but couldn’t get the printer to print-out the spreadsheet with exact amounts owed—and did the math again, this time using pen and paper.

Elda Mae (Ritter) Lange, 07/18/09, (c) CBL

Elda Mae (Ritter) Lange, 07/18/09, (c) Christiana Lambert

We are similar—and at the same time very different. In some ways we have our roles in the family—and if we have changed, people notice. This year my mom’s changes were hard to ignore. When the life of the party stays quiet, everyone listens. As much as these reunions give us a chance to catch up, they also remind us that many years have passed since those days at our grandmother’s house. Some people are permanently gone and others have aged more than we’d like to admit.

Yet as we went through old pictures, we had a chance to remember and celebrate who everyone was. Donna, the little girl I never knew, and her parents, Dale and Arlys. Our grandparents. My father. We come together to keep the memories alive, to create new ones, and to help one another when we are in need. Despite all the chaos of at our reunions, in that we find a small token of peace, that “Peace like a Ritter” about which we used to sing.

So, after an intense time spent among other Ritters, our personal family got back in the van and drove across the prairie towards the mountains. Even if it turns out to be my mom’s last reunion, I have some peace in knowing that she had one more chance to be with those whom she loved best.

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