Postcards of Grief

Mourning is a process.

Comments on breast cancer by proxy, written by a woman coping with the loss of her mother.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Mail fails me

My uncle Don passed away about two weeks ago. I didn’t know him well. In fact, I didn’t even know he existed until I was 18. He fell back into obscurity until January of 2003 when my grandfather died, but he’s been in my mind and my heart since then.

Uncle Don was married to my Aunt Kay, one of my grandfather’s sisters. Aunt Kay didn’t get along well with Aunts Bernice and Vera, but her relationship with my grandmother failed in a whole new way. Mom never knew Kay’s children, her cousins, when she was growing up. They met about a year and a half ago.

Aunt Kay and Uncle Don appeared for the first time in my life at my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary party. They were invited, but they did not have reserved seats at the family tables. Photos later revealed that the whole family was wearing black to this gathering. Knowing my grandparents’ marriage, it’s fitting.

When my grandfather died in January 2003, his remaining siblings, my Great-Aunts Bernice and Kay, both came. Aunt Kay and Uncle Don were not invited to the wake at my grandmother’s. My cousins, aunt, uncle, great-aunt, and cousin-once-removed all gathered with my immediate family, Hope and Brooke included, at the family home. There was sausage. There was beer. There was a cheese and vegetable tray. There were kolaches. There was slivovitz--which, for the record, actually does taste like gasoline. There were hilarity, sadness, uncomfortable silence, and (in the corner of the house) brutal honesty. My mother took a long pull in on a cigarette while her cousin Teri asked, “But they were never abusive or anything, right?”

“Oh, yes. They were. No doubt about it.” Deadpan.

In the months that followed, Mom reconnected with her Aunt Kay, the quiet and gentle woman who was nothing short of exiled from the family. Uncle Don had had a stroke a year or so back, and Kay was his primary caregiver. Their daughter Barbara lived with them and helped Kay out when she wasn’t working. Aunt Kay and Barbara made the five hour trek out to see Mom a month or so after her father died. They brought a nut roll, a recipe from my Slovakian great-grandmother, that requires one whole day and a five-foot long kitchen table. They talked about my grandmother and how she failed to nurture relationships.

“When I went to see you when you were a baby, I could tell, I knew from the way your mother looked at you,” Kay had said, “that she didn’t really love you.”

Barbara interrupted in the hope of correcting her mother’s story. “Mom, it sounds like you said that--”

And Mom and Kay interrupted her. “I know.” “I did.”

Mom felt validated. She always knew in the back of her mind that her mother didn’t really love her, that her heart wasn’t in the right place, wasn’t designed to be her mother. The fact is that my grandmother never cared much for my mother, and while my mother eventually came to a place of peace, I never have. I can’t forgive her. Forgiveness means accepting an apology with no strings attached. There’s never been any apology, and I can’t imagine a world where there would be one from her.

Aunt Kay took up residence in Mom’s heart. They bonded. Mom finally got to know her cousins. They were a happy, peaceful family. They loved each other, and I know that Aunt Kay gave my mother her love.

When Mom died, Uncle Don needed constant care, and Aunt Kay couldn’t make it out for the funeral. No one blamed her. We missed her. But I knew that I wanted to be there when Uncle Don died because my mother would want to be there. It wasn’t a sense of familial obligation, it was personal obligation. I wanted it. Dad wanted it, too.

Uncle Don’s funeral was on a Wednesday. I had Chinese class and a big deadline at work. I didn’t go with my dad. He enjoyed his time with Kay and her family. I wish I had been there.

I’ll make the trip out there to see them one of these days. I know I should do it sooner rather than later. I need to thank them for the love they gave my mother, for filling in that place in her life. My mother’s familial turmoil always affected me greatly, and Aunt Kay brought a peace to Mom and to me. I wrote something like this in a card to them, but it needs to be said in person. My gratitude can’t really be mailed.


At 12:09 PM, Blogger alice, uptown said...

My mother's family had the same kind of effect on me -- her parents had a child whom they apparently loved, a boy, who was killed at 10 by a train. They had my mom as a replacement -- (and in that family, a child having a Y chromosome trumped a double X by miles) and her mother said to her, when mom ws about 8, "it should have been you." What that did to my mother is almost unspeakable. My father told me that story when I was a teenager. Then, much of my mother's behavior began to make sense, although it had still imprinted on me, and didn't do anything for my self-esteem. (What did my mom know about self-esteem? It wasn't her fault; it was the situation she had grown up in.) My mother's mother finally died at 95, and I was, dare I say, glad, or at the very least happy to knock her off my obligations list, since she was such a horror to my mom, and I had to grow up with the results. What saved my mom was my Aunt Peggy, her mother's sister. I am grateful that my mom had someone like that to love her.


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