The plan was to do something special for our parents' 50th wedding anniversary. We would invite all their friends and relatives to send cards, collect all the cards together, and present them as a surprise. We thought it would be easy, but my brother, David, and I soon discovered that the job was a lot like pulling on a loose thread on your sleeve and unraveling the whole sweater.
Reaching Dad's six sisters was easy. I called one aunt and asked her to spread the word. Their cards arrived within a few days, but then they have always been a prompt bunch, just like my dad. I hadn't talked to
my uncle in years, and when I called him in Colorado, we had a great time catching up.
My mother's two sisters were easy to find, but hunting up cousins, nephews, and nieces required David's maneuvering on the Internet. We soon found the word spreading ahead of us. When I contacted one cousin, she had already heard from her sister, who got it from her niece's husband, who was informed by his mother, who played bridge with my aunt.
Then we started thinking about friends, both current and past. I knew the name of one of Dad's childhood friends from elementary school. When I called him, I learned that he had been best man at their wedding. He shared a few stories I had never heard about my dad as a boy.
I called my parents' friends in Kansas that I hadn't talked to in 20 years. They reminded me of a family in Reno, Nev., my parents had known when their daughter was in a nearby college. A few friends in Arizona reminded me of other old friends I should contact. Soon I was chasing down someone else in New York. I tried not to think about my phone bill.
In trying to recall old friends, my brother and I reviewed each place where we'd lived and all our parents' regular activities. My parents still keep in touch with some neighbors from our first house in Provo, Utah, and they have dinner once a year with our next-door neighbors from Springville. They were easy to find. A few more of my mother's school friends came to mind, then some people from offices where each had worked.
During our teenage and college years, we lived in a converted carriage house filled with character, and often with characters. My parents rented a room to a succession of students attending the local college. They housed a friend for a few weeks while her husband was traveling. The house became a social center for church people, square-dancing friends, and anyone passing through town. My parents started a catering business from the garage. David and I would contact one or two people, who would put us on the trail of a few more, who would remind us of someone else to reach.
We relived a lot of history while collecting those anniversary cards.
"Who was the college kid who taught skiing and the dog kept stealing his socks?" David would ask. We would recall someone else and unleash a new set of memories: "Remember when we all took Susan for a bike ride and surprised her with a catered picnic?"
Each memory would trigger the thought of someone else we could call. How did so many people fit into those years? And how did they end up in so many different places?
THE calls covered all parts of the country, and I began a lot of telephone conversations with questions like: "Excuse me, but did you go to BYU and live with the Huntingtons?" or "Are you the Howard and Joanne who know John and Bonnie Huntington?" I renewed old friendships and heard a lot of stories about my parents in the good old days.
I began to glimpse how many people had passed through the sphere of my parents' lives. Some touched only briefly; others remained for a lifetime. I had never thought to try and count up the number of people my parents knew, but now I realized it was far more than I would have thought. You can make a lot of friends in 50 years.
We couldn't track them all down. And we probably didn't think of them all. But we collected a pile of anniversary cards that served as a broad representation of the friends and family they have known.
My parents received the cards with great appreciation, but I felt a little guilty when they thanked us. They got all the cards, but I got to travel through 50 years of their lives - and to glimpse how many friends two people can collect in a lifetime.