Over the holidays, I started thinking about a blog about family. About the funny little paradoxes of family. Family who want to show their gratitude and love so they try too hard to be helpful; their assistance makes things take twice as long, results in things broken or done wrong. I was thinking about the little O. Henry dramas of real life, when you get a gift that isn’t quite right but you just have to love it so hard because of the love and thought that went into it, even though it sort of symbolizes a fundamental disconnect in how your family views you and how you view yourself. Even if it’s just pajama pants.
You learn to cherish pajama pants because of your family.
Family is complex, and frustrating, even in the moments of its purest distillation of love.
Last week my godfather died, and my kaleidoscopic view of family shifted again. Irritation melted away, and I longed to find myself trapped in the web of family that I have sometimes worked so hard to extricate myself from.
My godfather, my uncle, was the eldest of his siblings, seventeen years older than my baby father. He was the oldest member of one generation, I was the youngest of next. Every year until I was a teenager, he gave me a Barbie doll for Christmas. This is what having a godfather meant to me. I thought it was a contractual obligation. He smoked a pipe; I loved the way it smelled. To this day smelling pipe tobacco slaps me with a strong sense memory of his corner property, yellow house. He had a dry and subtle sense of humor. The older my father gets, the more he looks like his brother.
I can’t say truthfully that my uncle and I were very close; I was a shy little kid, and being so much younger than everyone in my family (my oldest cousin is probably pushing sixty; my youngest is seven years older than me) I generally tried to sit in a corner and not be noticed. In recent years I’ve tried harder to connect with my father’s extended family, four siblings and eighteen cousins, but my uncle has been unwell for several years, and his whispery voice made me nervous, afraid of missing his words – situations where communication is not easy always give me anxiety. And so, even as I have tried harder to ask questions about the family history, my relationship with my godfather has slipped away.
And now it is gone, and there are certainly some regrets.
No matter how close he and I were, he is in all my memories of rambling restaurant Thanksgivings and December 26th Bethlehem Christmas round-ups, family weddings and family picnics, sitting on a folding chair on the uneven brick patio of the house I grew up in. He is part of the fabric out of which my life is woven. There are five siblings on my dad’s side: they are the reason the rest of us exist, they knit us into a family. Despite two sibling spouse deaths in the last decade, this feels different. I suppose we are clannish that way; I’m sure my sister-in-law would agree we swarm to protect our own from outsiders – it takes them a long time to become an insider. This death feels like a loose thread, the start of a greater unraveling that I am not prepared for.
Today is my uncle’s funeral. This is the hardest part of being far away. I feel strongly that I should be there today, more for my father than anything else. He has lost a brother, a person he knew the length of his life, a person who is part of his context, a connection to his own parents and history. I can imagine his grief, and I’m sorry I’m not there to ease it, just by my respectful presence. I am fortunate that while I was home for Christmas I got to travel to Pennsylvania with my parents to see his family, and I sat in a room with all five of the siblings. It’s the last time that will ever happen, and I’m one of the only people who got to witness it. That is more meaningful I suppose than being home to witness a box being lowered into the ground. There is nothing I could DO if I were home now. Except be there.
But being there is important.
So I write this as a way of being there, connecting across distance, of throwing myself at the web, of acknowledging my place in it and my gratitude for it. My heart is already in Bethlehem, but I hope my words can create a bridge for its easy import and export. It seems trite, it seems small, but it’s all I have, it’s all I can do.
Dear Uncle Frankie,
Thank you for helping to create a family tapestry on which I am grateful to claim a small corner. May your journey now be easy, and joyful. You will be sorely missed.