My Mom died when I was pregnant with my first child, a daughter who was named for her. Four years later my daughter died. And five years after that my Dad died. Three of the most important and loved people in the world to me will never be known by my two sons. That just plain sucks.
As a child myself, I was born with three grandparents, as my Dad’s father had died when he was just 18. I knew my paternal grandfather’s name, but not much else. He was never real to me in the same way as my three living grandparents. My Irish grandmother died when I was just seven. I was named for her, Sheila being the Gaelic form of Celia. I remember a bit about her, but not much.
Oddly, I remember snapshots from my grandmother’s funeral that are still potent. I wore a red calico print skirt with matching shawl to her graveside service. I loved that outfit, as it made me feel like Half Pint from Little House on the Prairie. A cricket landed on my sleeve and I wanted so badly to scream and shout and jump up and down to get it off of me, but I didn’t. At seven, I was old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the situation, so my cricket freak out was silent. I remember seeing my Dad cry in the front seat of the car as we drove away from the funeral home, telling my Mom he was an orphan now. He was 44.
My other grandparents died when I was in my early 20s. My memories of them are fond and much more well grounded. I can easily recall details about their East Side bungalow, the smell of their basement, the tile in their bathroom, the grape arbor and vegetable garden in the backyard, the drips from the small window air conditioning unit that would fall on my head as I played in their gangway with my cousins.
They were kind and loving and generous and my life is a better one for having known them.
My sons will grow up knowing and loving two of their four grandparents (*my youngest, who is adopted, will have a more complicated relationship to all of this, I know, as he has biological grandparents, too). Given that my oldest boy was six when my Dad died, I am aware that his memories will be there, but tenuous. My husband’s parents are super grandparents — loving, generous, supportive, interested, but, alas, from a distance, as half the country separates us. I wish my boys were able to have a more day-to-day kind of relationship with them, but feel grateful they are as present and involved as they are.
The question for me, then, becomes one of how to make my Mom and Dad (and daughter/sister) real to them in a meaningful way. How do you make the dead come alive? How do you create a sense of relationship to someone they never met, or only knew as an infant or young child? Is this even possible?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, as my brother and sisters and I got together last week and pored through boxes and boxes of family photos, scanning and separating until we couldn’t see straight. I felt a deep relationship and connection to my Mom and Dad during this process — one that feels deeper after seeing both their lives, from childhood through death, be sorted and scanned in such a concentrated period of time. 81 and 70 years condensed into 48 hours. Would these photos matter to my boys? Will I hang on to them, clinging to my connection, only to have my sons discard them after my own death?
Ugh. And sigh. And sniffle. And ugh.
I felt a bit of hope while scrolling through Facebook the other day when I saw a friend post a photo of he and his daughter enjoying ice cream in honor of his Dad, gone many years before his granddaughter was born. The ice cream sundae was a tradition, a connection to a father and grandfather gone too soon. There was joy in the photo, potent joy, that transcended hot fudge and cherries.
Seeing the photo helped me realize the power of storytelling. Stories are how my boys will come to know their sister and grandparents as people that would have loved them silly, given a chance. An ice cream sundae can magically transform into a bridge when its story is told. An ice cream sundae can be the invisible thread that connects father and son and granddaughter. It is possible.
Grief can lead to helplessness and isolation, a shutting down and a retreat. But at its core, grief is evidence of love, an intangible residue of the relationships that were, the people that existed once, but are no longer. When those people we grieve are people that would have loved and enriched our children’s lives, the onus is on us to find that bridge and thread that can connect them.
My boys are young — 8 and 3. I still have the opportunity to tell the stories, hang the pictures, buy the sundaes and do my best to flesh out the grandparents and sister that are not part of our day-to-day, but who would have made their lives immeasurably better. Anything I do will be a poor substitute for living grandparents and sister, but it is so much better than nothing.