My aunt died this week.
I knew it was coming; I saw her in January when I went out to Iowa for my mother’s funeral and I could see her health was failing. Other than my father’s funeral five years ago, I hadn’t spent any real time back to Iowa in literally decades, and what I remember about her the most from that trip was how hungry she was for time together to catch up. The rift with my parents had unintentionally cut off the last remaining members of my mother’s family as well, and I’m terrible at keeping in touch (note how inconsistently I blog; my record speaks for itself). Even my sister spent the bare minimum amount of time visiting the area; she spent most of her efforts on phone calls and emails because being with our mother was … challenging.
So for the remaining family to see us both in person was a big deal.
The thing about death is that it leaves a lot of room for reflection. After our mother died, my sister uncovered a number of old photo albums and texted me a string of photos that unlocked old memories that had gotten lost in the passage of time.
They were really deep cuts, as they say in the record industry. Pictures of me when I was three, and still cute, and the woman who would be my stepmother while still on her good behavior with me, trying to land my dad in marriage. Photos of family members, thankfully complete with names and dates, made it much easier to connect names and faces and relationships. My sister even uncovered their wedding album, which I only remember seeing a few times. I still remember snippets of the event, but mostly I was just very much seen and not heard. It was, after all, not about me.
After they got married, we still lived in Nebraska for five or six more years and every Sunday we drove the hour to visit my grandparents. There were cousins and coffee cakes and potlucks and quilting and lots of adults whose names I never actually linked to their faces until much, much later. This was before my sister, so I spent most of my time there as an only child, being on the outside of the cousin bubble — outside the shared memories, the shared jokes, the shared history. In fact, I was a lot more comfortable with my grandparents’ farm cats than I was with my cousins. It was way more family than I’d ever had before, and it was overwhelming. You practically needed a map to make sense of the extent of their family tree (truth be told, I never did).
Over the years, the constants were always my grandparents and my aunt. I was close to my cousins while we lived in the same area, but once we relocated and started traveling, I only saw them a handful more times. When we came back around the world after living overseas. When my father died. When my mother died. It seems a pathetic handful, doesn’t it? Once my grandfather died, my grandmother rarely traveled outside of her comfort zone of Henderson and Omaha. One year my aunt and my grandmother drove out to Pennsylvania for a week. It was one of only two times my kids had with their great aunt and great grandmother, and it was priceless. We were so broke and overcrowded in our 2 bedroom rental, but all they could say was how wonderful it was to see us and how happy they were to spend time with us and our children. That was more than my mother could do.
The things you find value in after the fact.
I think, in some way, seeing these photos anew unlocked a portion of my life that makes the memories fresh again and, somehow, makes this loss even more bittersweet. As a kid whose paternal relatives were long gone and whose maternal relatives may never be revealed to me, these are the only ancestors I’ve ever known. At times I wonder what it would have been like to have grown up with extended family. It’s such a foreign concept to me. Would I have been better adjusted? Would I have become more or less numb to loss? Would I still be so close to my sister? Would I have felt more a part of something bigger than me? Would it have made a difference in my relationships with my parents? Would I have found more value in relationships in general, and kept in touch with others who cared about me? Would I have turned out to be a better person? Or just different?
What are the things inside us that make us who we are? How do the people in our lives shape us, both for better and for worse? I think about that a lot. I’ve had to find my own way throughout most of my adult life, and there’s a very definitive partitioning of my life and experiences — the then versus the now. The before and the after. My childhood and my children’s childhoods have almost no overlap whatsoever, either in experiences or in the family who played a part in their upbringing. That was by design. I’m the only person left that spans the two parts, the two separate families; without me, there is no connection between them. I grieve personal losses of family my children and husband will never know. A part of me is sad about that; another part, perhaps a nod back to the midwestern part of my existence, shrugs its shoulders and says well, there’s nothing to be done about that now. This is where we are, and that’s probably for the best. You can’t pick and choose what you live; only what you relive.
There won’t be any funeral service for my aunt, per her wishes. Her only request was that she wanted to spend the time she had left with her son and her two grandchildren, who were there for her until the end. Midwesterners are a pragmatic bunch; after all, there were barely a handful of people at my mother’s funeral in January. I suppose it makes sense. But there was comfort to be found in the gathering of family at Donna’s house, eating jello salads, sandwiches, and baked goods, sitting around dining tables and spare card tables, drinking coffee and sharing memories. It felt good to be a part of it (and, if I’m to be honest, I almost felt giddy finally getting to sit at the adults table). It was almost as if I could somehow see through another door in time, down another path at what my life might have been like, surrounded by these people. It was good to be reminded I even had these memories in the first place. I guess I’ll just have to be content with sharing my memories with you.
Thanks for the love, Bonnie, and for reminding me of the good parts. Godspeed and god bless.