Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Sum of All We Are

I'll never be one of those who say that family and genetics is entirely responsible for who we are and what we become—but I know it's a factor in my life, and it's one that I appreciate more and more with each passing year.

Earlier this week, my Aunt Carolyn passed away at the age of 72. I found myself wishing I had been closer to her in recent years; I also found myself remembering Carolyn and Uncle Jerry at my grandparents' house when I was much younger, and that led to other memories of family. Holiday gatherings, family get-togethers, Sunday dinners, casual conversations with adults, time spent with cousins... there are so many interrelated memories that rise to the surface at times like this.

When Susan and I went to the family visitation at the funeral home tonight, I had a chance to see Aunt Barbara and her daughter Pam; Jerry, Tammy, and Kathy; and Donna, Martha, and Paul. They're also my aunts and uncle, but I can never think of them as such because we're very close in age (Martha is barely older than me, and Donna and Paul are both younger). They're much more like cousins; we played together as children, we shared summer nights at my granparents' house when I'd stay there for the summer--and as Martha reminded me tonight, we even took baths together when we were young children! You see, my grandmother hated to waste bathwater for three individual kids when we'd all fit in one tub--but she did insist that we wear our underwear in the tub, just for propriety's sake!

Aunt Barbara is a wonder; she's the sort of person you feel close to immediately, and as you talk to her, you want to hear more about her life, her memories, the things that matter to her. She's inspirational in so many ways. And I particularly love hearing Barbara tell us stories of her life because she was so close to my father when they were younger. She is a link to my heritage, and she knows things that I could never know unless she shared them with me.

Because I hadn't seen Carolyn in a while, I wasn't sure how I'd feel when I saw her at the funeral home. When I did see her, though, tears welled in my eyes; this was a soul whose life had touched mine, and I realized that she had lived her life and had left it behind. I felt the loss very vividly, and I felt for her family who had lost her.

I looked at Carolyn's face in her repose and saw aspects of grandmother and granddad and my own father. I see similar aspects in Donna, and in Martha, and in Barbara, and in Paul. They carry the heritage of their parents and their siblings in the contours of their face, in the wrinkles of their eyes, in the bend of their smile, in so many little ways. They truly are a part of me in ways both visible and intangible.

They ended up gently urging us to leave the funeral home a while after the visitation should have ended; had they not, we might still be there, sharing stories and reminiscing and discussing where life has taken each of us (Donna and Tommy, for isntance, have followed a life path that has uncanny parallels with the path that my and Susan's lives have taken--the more we talked, the more surprised I was to learn that we had each made so many of the same decisions and made them come about in so many of the same manners). I'm sure, though, that the people who run the funeral home had their own families they wanted to get home to...


Pam said...

Cliff it was good to see you and Susan but wishing it was for a different reason then it was. This is very well written and says so much in such little space. Thank you for coming and being there with the rest of the family. Like you, looking at Aunt Carolyn brought back memories that have long been lost as the times I spent over there with Kathy. Carolyn and your Dad are together again and they are laughing at the times they shared growing up. Thank you for this.....Also, talking about the age thing, Uncle Paul's youngest daughter (my and your cousin) is exactly 40 yrs younger then I. It is hard to think of her as my cousin! Pam

Pam said...

Cliff, it was so good to see you and Susan....wishing it was for a different reason. This is so beautifully written and says so much in such a short space. Thank you for writting it. Like you I love to hear the memories and seeing Aunt Carolyn brought back ones of me at her house so many times with Kathy. And with those memories we wonder why we let yrs go by and time and space fill the blanks between when we see people we love. Thank you for this...I have copied and pasted this link to Martha, Donna, and the others...and by the way, talking about the age thing...did you know that Uncle Paul's youngest daugther is exactly 40 yrs younger then I! Hard to look at her and know she is my cousin! Take care. Pam

cliff said...

A lot of people seem baffled when I mention that I have an aunt and uncle who are younger than me. "Oh, did oen of your grandparents remarry someone a lot younger?" Always leads to a an explanation!...

The great thing about all these wonderful memories is that every reminiscence brings up a memory of yet another moment from the past--Granddad's worm farm, cleaning up at the drive-in theater, boiled peanuts... so many moments that I never want to lose.

And you're right--it is hard to believe I have cousin closer in age to my sister's grandchildren than she is to my own age!