This is a wordy, rather boring one– sorry. We’ve been on vacation for the past week, and the words are pouring out. I kept trying to get to my blog, to send you Thanksgiving wishes and to let you know how thankful I am to your mothers for giving birth to you all. There was just no time.
When Amadeus’ father died last January, we received a sympathy card from a friend. This is the age of loss, she wrote, and her words have stuck with me. Life is a numbers game. As time progresses, the odds change, and frankly, they suck. Our poker chips were piled high for a long time, but we’re middle-aged now, and the stacks are gradually growing smaller– not just ours, but our friends and family members as well. It seems as though we receive sad news weekly– Facebook keeps us aware of the tragedies of every friend and acquaintance. “Please pray for my mother,” a post will beseech, “My brother passed away peacefully last night,” another will say. The Internet brings bad news at light speed, and we’re more aware than ever of the depth and breadth of our loved ones’ struggles. Blog friends tell heartbreaking tales of their losses, and every few days some website reports that yet another of our childhood idols has gone to Celebrity Heaven.
I’ve told you about Amadeus’ heartaches– his brother died the August before last, five months later, his father. They were his only surviving nuclear family members, and sometimes his sorrow fills our airspace. Their memories, along with those of his mother and his son, cloud his mind and tear at his heart. He reads of musician friends who have traveled on– their past lifestyles and not-so-advanced ages remind him of his own wild past and his mortality. It reminds me too– I want at least twenty years with this guy, and preferably a hundred, but who knows how any of this will play out?
In the past year, my mother and one of her sisters had cancer scares; their youngest sister died last Spring. These are the women who helped paint the background of my life’s canvas. I cherish their beauty and laughter, their enduring sense of humor and fun, their strength in overcoming a lifetime of obstacles with a grace I wish I possessed. Their husbands are part of this canvas too. My mother’s no longer married, but my aunts have been with the same men forever, and I love them something fierce.
It all makes me feel a loss for something I haven’t yet lost. The awareness that the people I love won’t be around forever stays present. I want to hold them close and make them stay, but time and truth make it feel as though I’m holding their hands as they float toward the sky. I know that one day, our grip will break and they’ll fly away, just as I will. Just as we all do.
In February, I contacted my little sister, my favorite and only sister, and said, “I’m yearning for a big family Thanksgiving this year, but our house is too small. Would you be willing to host it?” She talked it over with her husband, who thought it was a great idea. We thought that maybe twenty or so would show–our kids, our mother, maybe an aunt and uncle and a cousin or two. “Twenty people! Where will everyone sit?” my sister wondered. We sent Facebook invites and for months, we heard nothing. Then our aunt died. Some scary health reports from the remaining sisters followed. A few RSVP’s rolled in, but they were marked, “Maybe.”
We sent occasional reminders, but were a little disheartened by the lack of response. “We’re still going to have fun,” my sister and I assured each other. At the very least, she and her family and Amadeus and I would have a chance to be together, and that in itself was just fantastic.
Everyone in the family was hit hard by the loss of Aunt Millie*– of the fact that the four sisters weren’t as indomitable as we’d always believed. The youngest was gone, the family landscape had changed and we were reminded that our wacky family structure is a temporary, shifting sort of gift. More RSVP’s came. More “I’ll be there’s.” A few variations of “Sam’s coming with his new girlfriend and two or three of his kids and maybe his ex-wife.”
In the end, there were forty of us, all gathered together, bursting the seams of my sister’s Tennessee home. We traveled from Arizona, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana and Arkansas. Young folks dominated, and we older ones were delighted. There were cousins galore, nieces and nephews we’d never met, a passel of squirmy new babies to step over as we made our way from the front porch to the kitchen to the deck out back. Every space was filled and jammed with joy. My brother-in-law cooked four turkeys, Amadeus baked pies from scratch, and my sister, niece and I made casseroles and other assorted side dishes. My rabbi bro brought his own, very Kosher food. Cousins and uncles (including Uncle Rabbi) played hackey sack and football in the yard, and the injuries were minor. I always look forward to our traditional Thanksgiving blowout evening, when we drink too much, reminisce and sloppily remind each other over and over again how much we love each other (followed by a spinning room and a massive hangover), but this year, the twenty-somethings ruled, and we geezers hung back and watched them make wonderful idiots of themselves as they chugged their evening beverages. Everyone got to meet Amadeus, and they talked and bonded and hugged him until I thought he might explode from the attention.
I brought Theo the Wonderdog® and my brother brought Zeke, his industrial-sized retriever. They hung out with my sister’s dog, Bo, a huge South African Black Lab, who’s a million and three years-old and on his last legs. This will be his last Thanksgiving, and the other dogs did their best to cheer him. My brother-in-law fed Theo so many turkey gizzards that the little Chihuahua became a medicine ball of immobility. He weaved around with a gizzard stuffed into his mouth, which made him look as though he had a perpetual, grayish-pink grin. At one point, we checked to make sure the gizzard wasn’t lodged there permanently, but he was simply hoarding it for later, when he could wedge it into his fat stomach.
The sounds in that house! Laughter trickled in a constant stream, then roared like an ocean. Amadeus, my brother and brother-in-law played guitars as my son accompanied them on his harmonica. The chattering, happy voices of our extended family were a background symphony. The Baptist cousins mingled with the Jewish cousins, the Catholics and Methodists melded with the atheists. At Thanksgiving, there’s no dividing line between rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, punker and pastor, the accomplished and the messy. Bonnie, a cousin I hadn’t seen in over three decades, arrived with her five children. She’s Aunt Millie’s daughter, and for years she’s struggled with addictions and demons and prison time. But there she was, clean and sober, gorgeous and happy, connecting with everyone and proudly introducing us to her kids and her new fiancé. They’d trekked from the hills of Virginia to be with us. Aunt Millie had been their rock– she’d helped them through their traumatic childhoods, raised them while their mom paid her Debt to Society and waited patiently while her daughter cleaned up her act. The children ranged in ages from about eleven to nineteen, and were initially shy. Everyone was aware of how much they’d been through, and we showered them with love and respect. I worried about her eldest son, Cody, a large, gentle, awkward guy who hardly spoke a word. He kept his head lowered and could barely meet our eyes.
Before we feasted, my mother finagled it so that Her Son the Rabbi led the prayer, then we all stuffed ourselves like human versions of Theo. No one hoarded food though– there was plenty for all. Wait- I take that back- my mom squirreled away three pieces of pie for herself and her gentleman friend, but someone found their stash and scarfed it down. My Aunt Cheryl passed around forty gift-wrapped, beribboned things, which looked like festive Tootsie Rolls. We all pulled the ends at once and discovered small treasures inside– riddles printed on rectangles, tiny toys, tissue paper crowns in bright, jeweled colors. We all felt like visiting royalty as we slipped on our new headgear.
That evening, the voices hummed more softly. My sister and brothers and I gathered on the front porch and performed our ritual, which involves the smoking of cigars and gentle discussions of the past, present and future. We began this tradition years ago, as a way to ensure that we had some sibling time during the madness of each family gathering. “Is everyone happy?” I asked, as we puffed away in the dark, rocking in rockers and swaying on the porch swing, and we all agreed that we were.
Later, some of the guys strummed guitars in the dark on that same front porch while others wandered upstairs to watch football. The philosophers drank beer and chatted on the deck. I was in the kitchen with a couple of nephews, when I heard the most beautiful sound coming from the living room. I went to investigate. Bonnie’s son, Cody, the one I suspected may have been mute, was singing “The Rattlin’ Bog,” an old Irish folksong. His voice was strong and pure, and he started out slowly as he sang about the various things that existed in the bog– a tree, a twig, a leaf, a nest, an egg… With each verse, the tempo increased, as did the contents of that bog. I was mesmerized. I sat down beside him as he sang, and when he finished, I begged him to do another. His sisters and their mother sat on the stairs, his brother perched beside me on the arm of the sofa. They called out requests, and Cody happily obliged. These were old songs, folk songs from around the world, and his siblings joined in on a few of them. I felt as though I was being treated to a concert by a band of angels. Bonnie explained that the kids had all performed as a gospel quintet when they were small, traveling to various churches in the towns that surrounded their tiny Virginia home. Cody never outgrew his love of music, and sang in choirs and competitions until he graduated high school. He hadn’t spoken two words since his arrival at my sister’s, but once he was able to express himself in his own language (the language of music), he crept out of his shell. I was happy to discover that there was a nightingale hiding in that shell, and after his performance, he seemed to relax a bit. He even smiled once or twice. Later, he told me about the work he did in a window factory, and proudly confided that he helped pay for the van repairs that allowed his family to make the trip. What a sweetheart of a guy. What a family. We were all incredibly grateful that they’d come.
I watched my daughter as she gently helped her toddler navigate a sea of family members she’d never met, the same sea I helped her navigate twenty years ago. She’s strong and smart and beautiful, and the fact that she and the Pea were in attendance meant the world to me. I haven’t seen her smile so much in a long, long time. Next week, she leaves for boot camp, and I’m missing her already. But she was there, by golly, and it was fantastic. She and her cousins oohed and ahhed over each others’ offspring– they cooed and cuddled, rocked them, passed them around and exchanged stories of their births.
Everything changes; life’s a constant transition. Inevitably, there will be more deaths, but there are also new shoots sprouting from the family tree. We notice the wrinkles forming around our cousins’ eyes, the aunts and uncles go back to their hotel rooms a little earlier than they used to. But we also feel babies’ heartbeats, hear children’s giggles and delight in their newness. For some of us, Thanksgiving was a reminder of the passage of time, and it made the time we shared sweeter. The ghosts of our ancestors loomed large. The absence of those we’ve lost was deeply felt, the impermanence of life apparent. But the love, affection and happiness that permeated my sister’s house healed and energized all of us. This may be the Age of Loss, but it’s also the Age of Appreciation. I don’t think there was a person at the grownup table who wasn’t deeply thankful for each person present.
On the drive home, Amadeus and I couldn’t stop talking about the week– the hustle and bustle, the minor dramas, the hilarity, the abundance of kindness and the joyful moments. It all overwhelmed us, in a very good way. He smiled and told me that he’d been hugged more in the past week than he had in his entire life. “Well, that’s a good thing,” I told him. He’d better get used to it. He’s family now.
*Of course, no real names have been used.