I have spent most of the weekend with family. Normally this is a good thing, and even in sorrow, we support each other. But this was more than the funeral of just one.
Yes it was the final goodbye of an aunt by marriage, but how could I tell the difference when I had known her as long as I had known my dad’s baby brother who preceded her in death seven years ago? She was my mother’s sister-in-law, and a beautiful educator with a smile as wide as the lower portion of her face. She was well one minute – perfectly well and planning a trip to Turkey with her sister – and gravely ill the next.
My cousins – three handsome men – and their immediate families sat in the pew in front of me and my elderly mother. The two remaining members of my dad’s family sat to my left – my last two uncles.
The most tender hearted of the three cousins shook with grief as the tears rolled down his cheeks. He reminds the most of my aunt, the other two are more like their dad and my dad. We grieve in silence and in private, welcoming guests with stoic and even smiling faces. We tell jokes and put others at ease. Then we fall apart in the closet at 2:00 am while the household sleeps.
But yesterday I looked at the remaining few of us and felt sick with longing for my grandparents’ Easter dinner, the sounds of all of us teasing each other, two aunts hiding by a backyard bush smoking cigarettes so their husbands wouldn’t know, my great aunt’s shrill voice and the way she talked of her brother – our ‘grand daddy’ (imagine that said with a long southern drawl) – the sound of another aunt’s laughter and the way she smiled that told the world she knew how beautiful she was, the four brothers spinning yarns, my grandmother’s ubiquitous corn bread baking while she lounged in her house dress and apron with her can of snuff in the pocket, the screen door on the back porch slamming again and again as one or all of us needed something from the kitchen, these same three men as boys who tormented us with our great-grandfather’s wooden leg when we dared to venture up the hill and to his empty old house while telling us he was haunting it and banging it on the attic floor. Which begs to ask the question – why on earth did they not bury it with him?
They’ve disappeared one by one.
After the service, we stood in line to speak to those in attendance. About three hours northwest of us, many had never met us or had seen us only at those occasions such as weddings and graduations.
My mother needed to sit and I instinctively took my deceased father’s place in the line, again, beside the last surviving two brothers. When I introduced myself as the daughter of the other brother, many seemed surprised.
“There was another brother?”
Of course they probably wouldn’t know him, as he has been dead for nearly thirty-eight years.
But there was another brother, and I was holding his place.
Approaching the age he was when he died has me feeling strange. Just as my life seems to be forging ahead with purpose, his was winding down.
I looked down the row of family. We seemed like a sad replica of ‘last man standing’. Who will be next? Who will we stand for next? Age doesn’t need to be the factor we consider as the uncle standing next to me lost his only daughter a few years ago.
Everything is different – changing – there will not be another lunch at my aunt and uncle’s home. We can’t go back.
I asked one of my uncles to write some memories down for me. Write them, preserve them, keep them alive, provide evidence that we lived and loved and laughed and argued and encouraged. Perhaps that’s why we all write. Maybe we need to leave behind proof that we touched the realm of earth even if for a brief time.
Immortality on a page.
As for Aunt Fran, Rest in Peace. You were a good and faithful soul and a sweet, loving, gracious spirit in a beautiful earth body and your presence amongst us will be missed.
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Oh, Renee, how beautifully writtten. Your post made me think so much of my mom’s family: she was one of 12 – 6 girls and 6 boys. The last one died earlier this year. It is so very sad that we CAN’T go back.
And I have to share this (the wooden leg story reminded me): last year I helped a cousin clean out the house of our uncle & aunt. (My uncle had fallen as a boy, permanently damaged his eye, and, as a result, had a glass eye.) One day while clearing out their house, I handed my cousin a small tie-tack sized box. She opened it and discovered Uncle Thomas’s glass eye. And we wondered: why wasn’t it buried with him?
Thanks so much for this. It expressed so many of the feelings I have….
And my sympathy in the loss of your aunt.
Thank you for such a lovely comment. I completely understand not being able to go back to your family’s old home when none of them are there. It proves the point that home isn’t a structure but the people within it.
Isn’t it funny how people’s prosthetics are sometimes left behind – leg, eye, whatever the person used in life, I say, should accompany them in death. This takes saving things for another use to a whole new level!
“Write them, preserve them, keep them alive, provide evidence that we lived and loved and laughed and argued and encouraged. Perhaps that’s why we all write. Maybe we need to leave behind proof that we touched the realm of earth even if for a brief time.”
You’ve captured, in grief, what we all want: to know that our time here mattered, that we made a difference, that someone will stand for us when it’s our turn.
Very sorry for your loss; beautiful post, but heartbreaking, too.
Thank you. I can tell that you totally understand.
I really identify with this post. Very nicely written too.
I have had similar thoughts and moments as I attend funerals in my family. For so long it seemed almost as if we, the whole big extended family, were invincible. No one died for many years. And then, inevitably, over the past decade, there have been a lot of losses. My dad is gone, I have one remaining grandparent, who, at 90, may outlive a lot of the rest of us…she’s still sharp and only takes a small dose of blood pressure medication! Aunts and uncles have passed on as well.
It is sad and sobering to watch the numbers dwindle. Like you, I recall many a gathering of the big group, when, if someone was missing, it was just because they couldn’t make it that year. But they were living. Now we are fewer in number each gathering.
I’m curious…I’m also originally from the South. What state is/was home to you? I grew up in Mississippi, but have lived all my adult life outside the South.
Thanks for sharing!
Hello Again Sheila,
Or should I say – fellow Southerner? I am a North Carolina girl – born, raised, and still calling it home. We do have another farm in Virginia, and I have done a bit of traveling but I come home to NC at the end of the trip. Mississippi is a place I have unfortunately managed to miss, although taking a river boat cruise down the mighty Mississippi is on my ‘life list’! I bet it is gorgeous! How fantastic that your grandmother is still around at 90 and doing well. I bet she is interesting!