It’s a weird age, this one I find myself in. I and many of my closest and dearest friends are finding ourselves involuntary members of a club, one that is not at all selective, but one for which the entry fee is enormous—the loss of a parent.
Slowly, through loss and grief, you become the family story keeper—the person who knows who married whom, when great Aunt So-and-so’s birthday is, and the person who can tell the tale of the ancestor who designed the Tampa Hotel or the invention your grandfather made for Southern railroad. Suddenly you understand why your elders sought to impress upon you the family history. If only it wouldn’t have fallen on the deaf ears of your youth!
I remember when my maternal grandmother died. It was the spring of my sophomore year in college. I missed an organic chemistry test to drive with my family to Florida for the funeral. That trip is one of my most cherished memories. I’m sure my mom, dad and sister would choose other words to describe it: “stressful”, “sad”, “heart breaking”, but I was too caught up in my college life to really understand what was going on for my mother. I do remember, about three months later after I had returned home for the summer, getting into a bit of an argument with my mom about something. She started crying, and when I asked her why she was so upset, she replied, “My mother died. Don’t you understand?”
No, I didn’t understand. But I do now, and I would give anything to be able to hug my mom and give her the support and understanding that the self-absorbed 20-year-old-who-had-never-lost-anyone-close was unable to provide.
In some ways, my four-year-old daughter is more sensitive to my loss of my mother than I was to my mother’s loss. Perhaps it is because my daughter still really relies on me for so much. I don’t know, but she has asked many times about my mom’s death and how that makes me feel. These conversations usually end with her giving me a hug.
Today when I told my daughter that a good friend of mine had lost her daddy, my daughter was genuinely concerned, and when she learned this was the same person who quilted her cherished “Sam-I-Am” blanket, her eyes shared a moment of sadness and compassion.
The loss of a parent is a wrenching thing. Suddenly you find yourself the keeper of the family history. You are now the authority on all things past, and if you are like me, you do not feel adequate to the task. The generation before us knew so much more. You now realize how valuable those conversations were and how often you sought advice without realizing you were seeking advice. You will be the one who has to name the unknown faces in the faded photographs, providing the metadata of location, time and emotion. You will be the one who has to remember the names and fates of the children of cousins.
Since my mother’s death I have realized just how faithful to the story the generation before me has been. My mom knew (and dad still does know) birthdates and received the correspondence from distant relatives. The elders people, send letters and keep up with family, even if only “through the grape vine” or the occasional overseas letter. My generation now has to learn the stories and keep up with the past so that our children can have a foundation for their future, some point of reference to serve as an anchor in their lives, and we have to do it now, here, in the present.
© 2012 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.