Distance is no issue when family learns to love one another

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They grew up on opposite coasts, have never met and most likely never will, but they share something in common (aside from the fact that they're both 18, seriously good-looking and recently graduated from high school) that I hope they'll remember.

It's simple.

An aunt and uncle who weren't often present in their lives but delighted in watching them grow up from afar love them very much.

Jack lives in California. He is my husband's sister's boy. I met him when he was 4, after I started dating his uncle. We were sitting on the floor playing with Legos, Jack and I, when he suddenly stopped, looked in my eyes and asked straight-faced, "Is Uncle Mark your dad?"

I've had a soft spot in my heart for that boy ever since.

Kiowa lives in South Carolina. She's my sister's granddaughter, the child of a nephew I claim as one of my boys. Technically, I'm her great aunt, but in our family, we're not big on technicalities.

I met Kiowa when she was 2, when I went "home," as we say, to the Carolinas for a visit. My sister was so proud of her first grandchild she was fairly foaming at the mouth.

"Isn't she beautiful? She looks just like me, don't you think? And she's so smart! And, oh, this is just the cutest thing: She says 'beyew' for 'blue'!"

Minutes later, when my sister got up for more barbecue, Kiowa dropped the chicken leg she was gnawing on and gave me a nasty look: "I don't say 'beyew' for 'beyew'!" she said indignantly. "I say 'beyew' for 'beyew'!"

I've had a soft spot in my heart for that girl ever since.

My husband met Kiowa some years later when I took him back to the South before we were married to see if he could pass muster with my family. He passed and has been back several times, if not nearly often enough in their opinions.

He's had very little real time with Kiowa but feels as if he knows her, mostly because he listens -- hanging on the words, laughing in all the right places -- to the Kiowa stories I tell him.

Some of those stories I've collected like souvenirs while visiting my family, but most of them I've heard from my sister when we talk on the phone. It's surprising how close you can stay by talking long distance.

You know how grandmas talk: Kiowa did this; Kiowa said that; Kiowa is barrel-racing again this weekend at the rodeo.

My husband collects similar stories about Jack, some on visits but mostly from talking on the phone with Jack's mom.

You know how moms talk: Jack did this; Jack said that; Jack's got another water polo tournament this weekend.

My husband tells me the Jack stories, and I hang on the words, laughing in all the right places.

Somehow, though I get to spend so little real time with Jack, I feel as if I know him.

Stories do that. They keep families and friends connected across miles and over years.

When we talk about the everyday, ordinary events in our lives, we build bridges that can span any distance.

Those bridges allow us to bear each other's burdens, pray for each other's best and share in each other's hopes and dreams for ourselves and our children and our children's children.

Our stories remind us that we are not alone, that we're all on this strange road of life together, propping each other up and cheering each other on.

Jack figured out a long time ago that Uncle Mark is not my dad, and Kiowa, I assure you, always says "blue" for "blue."

They are all grown up, strong and good and beautiful and shining, heading out on their own to make this sweet old world new again.

They will forever hold a soft spot in our hearts and a for-sure place in our prayers.

And we'll keep waiting to hear the next chapter of their stories.

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