On a New Year’s Eve when the old, tired year refused to go quietly, instead dragging a jagged line of destruction across the middle of the country, we found ourselves on the road, trying to get home before Julianna’s croup rose up roaring again, just in case we had to make a fast trip to the hospital. When KMOX warned that the “rain-wrapped” tornadoes were headed right for us, we pulled off at Nashville, Illinois, and took refuge in a McDonald’s, where, along with a couple dozen other weary travelers, we waited out the storm pounding across southern Illinois.
It was my job to chase Julianna as she went wandering, up one aisle of booths and down the next, stopping at each table to smile her big Miss America smile and wave, “AAAHH!” (= “hi”). “Here she is, Miss America,” I said wryly, by way of apology, and the older woman at the first booth, and the two younger ones at the second, both laughed. Like us, their tables were without food. “Are you waiting out the storm?” I asked, and they nodded. And suddenly everyone was sharing radar images on tiny handheld devices and laptop screens, watching the wall-hung TV, which was tuned to the Weather Channel, and together, trying to figure out when it might be safe to get back on the highway. Community found in an unexpected, and unwelcome, pit stop.
There was the family two hours from home after spending a week at Disney World. The pair of college girls, presumably headed into the city to spend New Year’s Eve on the town. The young couple with the in-laws. And us. Weary travelers all.
At last, the storm passed, and we trekked westward, over the Mississippi past the gleaming arch, pausing briefly to drop off a pair of shoes left behind by a nephew, then across the Missouri beneath a pale, ephemeral rainbow, until at last, two hours later than expected, we pulled up at my aunt’s house. The door opened on a tangle of relatives gathered in the foyer: Grandma, aunts and uncles and cousins and siblings bidding goodbye to more distant family members, and greeting our arrival.
Julianna and I greeted my uncle—a sucker for kids if there ever was one—who wrapped her up in the same wonderful bear hug he used to give me when I was her size. To the right stood an older man in clerical collar, a man I didn’t know, but whom (I assumed) must be one of the myriad cousins. “This is Kate,” said Uncle Gerard, and I shook the priest’s hand, “and this…”
When the laughter died down and the shock wore off, Fr. Swetnam (as I learned, a cousin of my grandfather) had bright pink spots on his cheeks.
He was supposed to be leaving, but fifteen minutes later we were standing beside my aunt’s well-laden table, chatting. “That was the best part of the whole reunion!” he said. I learned that he is a teacher and speaker who spent much of his priesthood in Rome, and that for one night, when I was a baby in a crib, he and I were roommates at my parents’ house.
As I stood beside this man, two generations my senior, I was struck by the touch points all around us. Was there something about this young priest, that long ago night, that reached out to a sleeping child in a crib and took up residence, lying latent as I grew to adulthood? Something that passed down unnoticed through the nine months Julianna spent in my womb? Something that made her recognize him when he crossed my path again, and leap across the chasm of distance to complete the circle?
On a day touched in so many places by tragedy, my daughter taught me the value of touching others, of making eye contact with strangers, of building community in places and with people in places where I least expect it.