As a child, I never would have imagined that in adulthood, there would be family members I would only see at weddings and funerals. I don’t mean distant branches of the family tree, but close relatives…. grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins. Even as my cousins and I seemed to have less in common as we got older, I still envisioned adulthood peppered with family reunions and occasional holiday gatherings. I have written before about the gradual absence of all but my immediate family. But inevitably, that wedding or funeral comes around.
My grandfather died last week. He was a very handsome Italian-American named Joe; the first generation of his family to be born in America. Family rumor has him as one of 13 children, but everyone I’ve talked to can only name six of them; the rest are assumed to have died in infancy. I have memories of he and my Armenian grandma taking us to the donut shop for donuts-on-a-stick and stickers from the vending machine by the door. It seemed that every time we visited, he was eating basturma (I remember it pronounced BAS-too-mah), which is air-dried, cured beef. He was always thrilled to see us; so proud, and so protective. Coast bar soap reminds me of him, and I’m not sure why.
At 87 years old, and in failing health after a couple of strokes, Grandpa’s death was not a surprise. A midst the predictable feelings of sadness, there mingled a few other emotions as I began planning the logistics of our trip to bid him farewell.
Stress as I made arrangements for leaving our children behind while we spent two days in New Jersey for the viewing, funeral, and burial services. My in-laws were more than willing to watch them for us, but I needed to type up instructions so the kiddos wouldn’t try to con their way into endless screen time and no chores. Also on the docket were a light school plan and medical authorization forms, just in case.
Indecision as I hemmed and hawed about whether or not to bring our 3-yr-old with us. She is needy at bedtime, and also my “baby”. She would be a great buffer for those awkward moments with estranged family members. (She ultimately came with us and was spoiled rotten.)
Embarrassment when I thought of showing up overweight after not seeing many of these people for several years. Adding to that embarrassment was the struggle to find appropriate clothing to wear when I haven’t been shopping for my larger body.
Anger when I thought of those family members who’d shunned myself, my parents, and siblings with no explanation. For years, I’d known the time would come when we’d be forced to spend time together. That time had come, and it felt like I was about to enter a hostile middle school cafeteria. No logic. No rules. Just “I don’t like you.”
Excitement when I thought of the ones whose love is evident. The ones it is a joy to spend time with, no matter how long it’s been. The ones I can talk to and laugh with and be myself with.
Anxiety at the thought of actually leaving my children, although I had no doubt that they were in capable hands.
I spent the week praying for grace, strength, safety, and peace. I prayed that Jesus’ love would shine through me, regardless of what was going on around me.
In the end, the good moments far outweighed the bad.
The bad…. In addition to the terrifying drive around Philly, there was the anticipated family angst. The “shunners” were very inconsistent with their shunning. One moment avoiding eye contact and bee-lining it away from me, and the next carrying on what seemed like normal conversations, but felt like a big game of “let’s pretend.” It was unnerving, confusing, and a little sickening. But those moments were few.
The good…. I got to see many family members and friends, who all came together to honor my grandpa. I enjoyed great conversations, good food, and laughter. My grandma did not make her usual inquiry about whether or not I was pregnant again, to which she generally responds “thank God” when the answer is no. In fact, she proudly announced to several people that I have eight children, and told one of my sisters what a blessing my kids are. Wow.
I came home feeling inspired to make more of an effort to remain connected. I thought about hosting a family reunion when our house is more hospitable. I kicked myself for bringing my camera and not taking any pictures, especially of all the cousins together. I don’t know if anything will change in our family dynamics. My bet would be on “probably not.” I feel sad but resigned to that fact, and just grateful for the good times that we had this week.
My grandpa and I weren’t really very close, but every time I saw him, his face lit up with a smile. He liked to tell the story of when I was little and just learning to walk. I’d fall forward and end up rump-in-the-air to reveal a heart on the bottom of my diaper cover. I’m 36 years old, and until he lost the ability to talk a few years ago, that was still a memory he shared often, and with joy. And he called me “my Michelle.”