Families are funny. Just when you believe that everybody’s clan celebrates birthdays by playing miniature golf, and everybody sings “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” at funerals, the way your family does, you find out that the folks next door do it differently.
Some of those rites and rituals are surface things. Others denote a deeper difference. Take the family of my ex-husband, Chris (please). To say they had some problems is the understatement of the year. You can say those problems have caused a lot of pain and grief for my children, too.
One of the ways a family reveals its true colors – and here I’m talking about not just Mom, Dad, and the Kids, but the whole extended smorgasbord, from snarky cousin Sue to that sweetheart Uncle Ned – is how the news is spread of a death in the family. Some workplaces set up calling trees as a means of getting news out efficiently, but I doubt any family has a plan that rigid. (My dad might have liked that idea; I kind of do myself; I am definitely my father’s girl.)
When your parents are alive, it’s usually one of them who calls to say Aunt Betty has lost her battle with that awful disease. Once your folks are gone, you can only hope someone else will include you in the phone tree, especially if you’ve moved away from the homestead.
My grandpa, the only one I knew, died while I was living in Colorado, after I’d separated from my first husband. Mom called, and it was sad, but not unexpected. He was 95, living in a nursing home. I couldn’t make the funeral, but I did tell my kids, who were only four and seven. I described their Great-Grandpa as best I could, hoping a memory would sprout so they could know what they’d lost. “Remember the big back yard, with the apple trees? I think I have a picture of you guys throwing green apples!” A little spark lit in their eyes.
I was paying attention to Allison, because she was the oldest. Daniel was only four, and what does a four-year-old know of death? I learned my lesson that day, as my daughter and I turned to Daniel, who had burst into tears. Oh, I thought, gathering him to me. I guess a four-year-old does know something about death. To this day, family is very important to him.
Years later, when my cousin Mary’s 17-year-old daughter Jolee was killed in a car wreck, it was my Aunt Maureen who called. I’d never met Mary’s kids, but I was stricken. Of course I drove down to the funeral. Jolee’s white coffin was strewn with messages written with a black magic marker, tortured farewells from her bewildered friends.
After my parents were gone, I ended up relying on my sister, Bonnie. She may have an IQ of 70 and more than one psychiatric diagnosis, but she can read, and she always scoured the obituaries. It was Bonnie who called to tell me about Uncle John. Bonnie took these losses hard. She always ended up in the hospital’s psych ward after a family death.
I thought it was a good thing when she had to move to Keokuk, to one of Iowa’s few nursing homes for people with mental health disorders. Now she couldn’t read the Quad City Times. Now I could keep the distressing news from her.
She wouldn’t have learned of the deaths in my late ex-husband’s family, since they’d all moved far from Davenport. Chris had a father, a mother, three siblings, and one aunt and uncle, plus three girl cousins. That was it. We learned Chris had died when his brother David called. After that, only one of those sibs kept in touch, and only with my daughter. Aunt Catherine was her Facebook “friend,” a term I use very loosely.
So that’s how Allison figured out that Grandpa Jack had died, when Catherine wrote a her cryptic Facebook message: “Allison! Call your Grandma Jean right now!” She did not. As grandparents, Jean and Jack left a lot to be desired. I can forgive them their alcoholism – it’s a disease; it’s excruciatingly hard to get sober – but not the way they picked on my kids when they were drunk.
Just so, it was through Facebook that Allison figured out her Grandma Jean was gone. Some friend of her Aunt Catherine’s posted, “Are both of your parents still alive?” and she answered, “No.” Allison called me, and in a flurry of web surfing, we found an obituary from January. Why did no one call, or email? Maybe they were angry that we seemed to ignore Jack’s passing. In Jean’s obituary, we learned of another loss, when it said she was preceded in death by her sister Kay. Now that was someone we would miss.
While we were at it, I looked up my Aunt Genevieve, widow of my father’s older brother. I found her months-old obituary, and wondered why no one had told me. Maybe they tried; maybe they’d lost my address, and couldn’t remember my new husband’s name. Aunt Gen was wonderful, and I regret missing her funeral. If only I had known.
I forgive them. I’m certain they wanted to reach me. Our family had its share of dysfunction – name me one that doesn’t! – but there was a lot of love and care mixed in. Now I have only one aunt left, and all my uncles are gone. It’s news I work hard to keep from my sister. As far as she knows, no one has died since she moved away. I like being able to keep these good people, such a part of our lives growing up, alive for her, forever.