“Mama said a lot of things and ‘be thankful’
was the one she never minded saying twice.
Thanks to her I can think clear enough
to be thankful that she died before tonight.”
— The Drive-By Truckers, “Ghost to Most”
When I was growing up, I lived next door to my grandparents. They had friends and relatives over to their house several nights a week to play cards, and the door was always open for any unscheduled visits that anyone wanted to make. The card games usually consisted of Rummy, but there were the occasional Uno games as well, and at a pretty young age, my grandparents and great aunts and great uncles would let my sister and I play. And heck, sometimes we’d win. Not usually, but sometimes. When my grandfather wanted to lay the smackdown on you at the card table, he could do it without even trying, his face only occasionally moving past a wry grin. He once caught my teenaged cousins playing poker for money at one of the Christmas trees (we called our family Christmas party the “Christmas tree” — we may be the only people who did such a thing, because I’ve never heard it anywhere else). He didn’t say anything. He just sat down, started playing, and cleaned them out of every dime they had.
All those folks from the older generation are gone now. There are one or two left, but none from that core group whose elbows I always seemed perched on, checking out their cards. My grandmother died after several strokes, while cancer got my grandfather not too much later. Various faces of old age and disease took the rest. As a child, I thought they were immortal. In my mind’s eye, they were never young — I only knew them once the wrinkles started coming in — and they never changed. They were the rock solid foundation of our family. After I grew up and went off to school, and got busy with my halting and laughable attempts at getting my adult life going with some momentum, it was always comforting to know that they were there. That they were still going square dancing, that one great uncle was still telling hilarious tales to whoever would listen about his fear of airbags in cars, and that you could count on my grandfather to give you his honest opinion about whatever stupid thing you thinking about doing (He wasn’t a negative person; I genuinely came up with some stupid stuff).
It’s hard not to feel unmoored as a result. My parents are still here, as are their brothers, sisters, and all of my cousins and their children. It was that older generation, though, who made sure we had reunions, Easter egg hunts, and Christmas get-togethers. It was a generation rooted in tradition, from those regular card games, to my grandfather’s ritual of giving all the boys in the family five bucks and a package of tube socks every Christmas. Now that they’re gone, the clan doesn’t get together anymore, except at funerals. We tried a reunion recently, and it went well. We’re a quiet family, though, and my wife was a little startled when we walked into the banquet hall and everyone was just sitting there staring at each other. That’s just how we roll until the sweet tea starts flowing and loosening everyone up. Not sure if we’ll have another one, though. Summer’s rolling around again, and I don’t hear anyone talking about doing it. As it was, I think it was my sister who was the driving force for that last one, and she lives seven hours away, while the rest of us all still here living close to each other.
We’re fortunate in the fact that my wife’s family still maintains some of their old traditions. Her mother and father both died fairly recently, and that has caused some of her family’s traditions to change, but the larger clan still does what it can to maintain some sense of community and continuity. Plus, we’re able to get our kids downstate on a fairly regular basis to play with their cousins, whom they absolutely adore.
We’re also lucky to have my mother keeping the kids a couple of days a week while we work. There’s the obvious benefit of saving on day care costs, but it also creates some continuity because they’re essentially getting a bit of the same raising that I got (although, apparently, with more ice cream and freezer pops).
Still, it’s sobering to think that in some ways, our kids are being raised not knowing the deep and wide-ranging familial ties that my wife and I grew up with. I think they’ll turn out fine, but there’s something to be said for realizing that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, even if that “something bigger” is an older generation that’s keeping an eye on you and ratting you out to your parents. I miss that older generation, even though I didn’t see them as much in my later years because, you know, life gets in the way and you’ll make sure to get by there next time until there aren’t any more next times. It’s very unlikely, on my side of the family, that my children will really know many of their relatives. Apart from my male cousins and I getting together for infrequent boys’ nights (where we joke that we don’t even know the names of each other’s children), we just don’t gather. They’ll fare better on my wife’s side, but that side of the kids’ family tree lives four hours away.
It’s not the kind of thing that would have made my grandparents proud, the way their descendents have pretty much forgotten their shared roots, or even how to communicate with one another. Heck, only about five of us are even on Facebook (if you count my sister running silent under an alias), and I’m the only one who occasionally posts. So we can’t even lamely say that we at least know what each other is up to.
And it’s not like, if I got off my butt and helped call a yearly gathering of the tribe, that it would help much. One of the reasons that I got to see so many family members on a regular basis is because we lived next door to my grandparents. People were always coming by to see them, and us kids would just run around for a few hours getting into God knows what while the adults talked. There’s not a central location like that anymore. These days, it sure won’t be our house. We’re loners. So’s everyone else.
Welcome to the family, kids, the nicest bunch of hermits you’ll ever have the chance to maybe meet (at once-a-decade reunions, funerals, and chance meetings at hardware stores).