“She’s sleeping a lot, and not eating much. If it’s important for you to say goodbye in person, you should plan your trip for the next two weeks.”
Dad’s email was pretty devoid of sentiment. That was probably his coping mechanism to manage emotion. From half way around the world in New Zealand, mine certainly were raging.
I am the oldest grandchild. Mommom was only 52 when I was born, and since we lived in Saratoga, only 45 minutes from Delmar, we garnered the grandparent attention like no others. We spent a lot of special time together. For me my grandmother’s passing wasn’t a distant fact of life, as it is for so many others who had un-involved grandparents. It was a bereavement; a loss of a source of identity, a loss of a great love.
Before Poppop died I had planned a trip back to the states with both my kids; Milo was 3 and Naomi was 8 months. I had wanted to bring the kids back to meet both grandparents, as a way of honouring them and thanking them for their involvement in our lives. When Poppop died three months later, I didn’t make a trip back for the funeral; I felt I had already said my goodbye in person.
But with Mommom, I felt differently. At the end of her life, she wasn’t able to have conversations. She might have recognized me, but then again she might not have. I was already too late to say goodbye in person. And after she died, I wasn’t sure how to move on. No one in New Zealand knew her. No one could share special memories to celebrate her life and enjoy her legacy, and that’s how she deserved to be honoured. I needed the family for that. I wanted to go home.
My uncle’s statement corroborated: “I will do everything including throwing toys out of the pram to wait until you can make it. You need to be there and we need you there.”
It’s good to be wanted.
The memorial service was set for the end of May, plenty of time to plan a trip. This time I went alone; we had a family trip already planned for July, and besides, I wanted to focus entirely on the Harro family.
I decided to fly in to NYC a few days early and spend some time with my Mom and my sister and her new baby. Kelsey was working, so during the days Mom and I traipsed around Harlem and Manhattan with four-month-old Emerson, navigating the subways and enjoying uninterrupted conversation in the city’s many parks. Here we are at the NYC Botanical garden.
My first day in NYC we met Kelsey for lunch in Bryant Park, Manhattan, near her work. Kels was home in the evenings, so we got to reconnect then too.
Kelsey is in the process of buying her own apartment, but this is her temporary lodging, and is probably typical of NYC living–tiny!
My major impression of NYC is that it’s HEAVING with people. Surprise, surprise. And on such a lovely spring day, everyone was out enjoying the day. This view is from the steps of the NY public library.
On Friday we took the train to Albany, where the rest of the family was gathering. My aunt had organized a block of hotel rooms for us all to be close, and under one roof we had maximum time to converse after years of separation. Some of my cousins have kids of their own, a passel of quick-moving boys, and I spent the first evening reviewing their names, wishing I had flash cards. Quinn, Mason, and Colton. Miles and Cooper. Fox, Macaiah, and Teddy. There, I’ve written them, I ought to be able to remember them….if they’d only stand still. I gawked at my cousins Spencer and Crosby; they were young teens last I saw them, now they’re young men. Does Crosby realize that he looks just like Clayton? And Riley is driving! Kevin has bulked out, John now has no hair…..and Duncan has more than his fair share of curly locks. And the uncles and aunts! Everyone has aged, and put on some weight. But their fundamental characters are so stable and recognizable after the decades.
Saturday morning was the graveside service. Poppop is buried in the cemetery behind their Delmar house, and Mommom’s ashes are there too, in the same sandy soil she fought with in the garden for 40 years. Poppop did always tease her that she’d be cremated, so she’d be warm at the end.
Saturday afternoon we went to Thatcher State Park, where my aunt had reserved a pavilion, arranged a catered picnic, and set up a tent overlooking an escarpment for the memorial service. It was filled with family and close friends, many of whom I knew from childhood. Mommom would have loved it there.
My uncle had invited anyone who wanted to talk to prepare something short to share. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, but wanted to honour Mommom by saying something. My uncle suggested sorting some special memories into categories and seeing if a theme emerged, and said to aim for 3 minutes, max, and I had worked and reworked my memories into a theme of sorts. Then worked on making it familiar enough that I had a chance of delivering it without being a untidy emotional mess.
“How can I look back and encapsulate the gift I had of being the eldest grandchild, of living near Mommom and Poppop when they were young and energetic?
“In three minutes….!
“That’s hard to do. So instead I’ll just share a few favorite snippets of memories.
“Some of my strongest memories are of the things Mommom LOVED.
-the bright green Weeping Willows in spring
-the cheery Marsh Marigolds
-the Fraser Fir Christmas tree, with baskets of dried flowers and chocolates
-her little green car; “I’ve come to visit you in my “Green Apple,” she’d say
She named the practical plastic table cloth that protected the carpet under the kid dining table her “flower garden.”
We drank Red Zinger tea from her special collection of tea cups
Her favorite word was “Lapis Lazuli.”
“She delighted in beautiful things. In warm and colourful beautiful things. And in names…she loved naming things. There is feeling in the names.
“My enduring memory of Mommom is that emotion counts. The feeling of a thing matters. And the words we choose to describe things have the power to shape how we feel about them.
“So in her honor, I will pause to admire beautiful things. I will name them. And I will take time to savour them.”
I had expected lots of grandkids to say a few words, but only one other put their hand up. If I had known I was representing Grandchildren in general, I would have added some more. I would have gone into more detail about the things they did with us—the overnight canoe trips at Follensby, the sizzling apples roasted in the wood stove, the quilt making and car trips to Charleston, getting tossed into huge piles of leaves raked up in the fall, and the birthdays and school performances and music recitals they celebrated with us. I would have pointed out that the activities themselves were fun, but the real value was the love they gave us. It’s a wonderfully secure place to be, when you know your family loves you, unconditionally, regardless of personality faults, achievements, or lack thereof. I was reminded on this trip just how powerful that is. Grandparents and extended family add layer upon layer to what parents can possibly offer.
My dad and his brothers all had something to say. Their stories certainly illuminated who Mommom was, but interestingly enough what they chose to share and how they shared it was also uniquely characteristic of who they are. Stewart made us laugh and didn’t need any notes to carry his tale. Dwight (and Laurie) had show and tell items and a themed story. My dad had a long story with a back story about where Mommom came from with fear and loss to fullness. Ted made us laugh too, and incorporated some philosophy along with sincerity.
The day after the memorial we went on a hike at Rensselaerville, along a waterfall and to a little lake.
Jack in the Pulpits were blooming just as I remember as kid, hunting them out in the woods behind Mommom’s house and peering beneath their little flap to the preacher inside.
The walk’s destination was a little lake with a stony shore, perfect for stone chucking.
That afternoon we headed back to 10 Sylvan Ave, the old family home now owned by family friends, for a picnic. I had been worried about going back to the beloved house. Sometimes a place is changed beyond recognition, and a return visit is sad. But this time, despite changes made by the Jerebek family, it still felt like a family home.
A week is a short time to travel all the way back to the USA, but surprisingly it was long enough to be refreshing. The shared history of family is pretty special, as is their love, a love that’s independent of performance and undented by personality foibles. The oldest generation is gone now, but I’m still wearing their affection, an invisible cloak against the wear and tear of daily life. Thanks, Family.