I’m a big holiday person, and not just the regular big deals like Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day, but also May Day, Cinco de Mayo etc. Sometimes I mark the day by doing something nice (May Day baskets!) for others or just baking something for Roy’s (my husband’s) work or the neighbors. (One of Roy’s favorite cupcakes I make was one of the first recipes I ever created on my own, and they’re for Cinco de Mayo. Chocolate Chili Cupcakes with Chili Cream Cheese Frosting. I use a couple of different peppers and spices for them, but I only make them once a year.) Memorial Day is usually about me remembering those I’ve loved and lost and reflecting on them. It’s not a sad time, but it is one that I spend alone. I don’t go out, I don’t party, and I certainly don’t entertain. But this year I did something a little different.
This year, I didn’t want to do what I usually do. I felt that way last week; it just didn’t feel right this year. I thought of all of the people who typically occupy my thoughts on Memorial Day and I realized that just sitting around, deep in thought, was not their style. Nearly each of them loved being around friends and family.
My paternal grandparents were more like parents to me than my actual parents were, and they both shaped me in ways I still can’t completely fathom. My grandmother, Mary, was the most compassionate and loving person I have ever known. She was soft and quiet, and I realize, possibly for the first time, how much my husband is like her. They both have such power without being loud. I’ve never been effective as subtle; in fact I don’t know if I even know how to be subtle. Roy (my husband) and my grandmother were/are subtle, unassuming, not-at-all demanding, and yet in their own way they can make things happen. I’m the sledgehammer, but sometimes the gentle whisper accomplishes the same thing a hammer would. My grandmother helped foster my love of reading, which later led to my love of writing. She was the only person who ever told me they were proud of me growing up. Everything I know of love and loyalty and family, I learned from her. I told her this on her deathbed; I was there for three agonizing weeks. She taught me death is slow and cruel and completely surprising. I think she was the first person who taught me how to grieve fiercely. And I did.
My grandfather, her husband, died two months later. He died of a broken heart – I know this, and so does everyone else in my family. He simply didn’t want to be without her, and if you spend months wanting to die at that age – it really doesn’t take much. But my grandfather was remarkable, and I know I get a lot of my personality from him. He didn’t follow the rules, he made his own. He was smart, and always found a way around something. These skills have served me well, between going up against prejudiced policies or working and going to school fulltime while having several brain surgeries, a heart surgery, and some other miscellaneous operations. When I broke my leg in high school, I was faster than I had ever been on my crutches. I don’t know how to slow down, and he didn’t know how to either. I always credit him for my intuition (one of the few things I can unashamedly say, damn I got skills! 😉 ). He was a famous private investigator. People wrote books about him and his cases, and even made a lifetime movie about him. He specialized in child abductions and rescuing people from cults and deprogramming them. To say he led an interesting life would be an understatement.
For both of my grandparents however, it was all about the people they loved – family, both biological and chosen. Most of the traditions I have worked so hard to keep (like ten desserts at Christmas, Christmas Eve as a big deal versus Christmas Day, and green bean casserole as a staple for ANY holiday) I got from my grandmother. I would often help her in the kitchen on every major holiday, just her and me, while Grandpa was in the living room watching TV or reading the paper. I always made the green bean casserole once she taught me and for more than a decade it was the only thing I could make well. I know that both of them are happy for me now, and the life that I’ve built. It’s been hard, and I had to unlearn a bunch of crap because my mother is criminally insane and the stories I could tell would turn stomachs – and those were the “regular” days. I had to work on myself, learn to love myself, reframe… well everything. Dying helped, as in I really did die and then spent a year trying to stay “not dead.” I think that experience allowed me to speed up this self-work. I would have gotten there eventually, but it may have taken another ten years. Now I have a loving husband whom I love more than I can articulate and as a writer that’s kind of bad… We have a house and we have built a home and are family. And we hope to expand that family someday soon. I realized they would both want me to not withdraw into myself, as I often do, but to just be with others that I care about. Because that’s what life is all about.
A member of my chosen family (Jerry) who died (and he was a vet) was very much the same. He was so generous in spirit and full of love and grace. And he loved to entertain! He was an amazing cook, and he would just have friends over for dinner just because, with his partner, Jay. They really reinforced to me that family isn’t just biology, because they are my family; they always will be. I always make sure to see Jay when I’m in Nebraska. We’re great friends and he has found someone else who makes him happy and I know Jerry is smiling down on him. He would want Jay to be happy and nothing else. When I think of him and get over the shiver of sadness that always goes through my body when I realize I’ll never see him again, I smile because every memory of him was good, and full of love and life and people.
The other two people who don’t leave my thoughts is my Aunt Linda and my childhood best friend, Matt, who were taken by a seizure and a brain tumor respectively. For them it is less about how they lived and more about honoring them I guess. Matt didn’t get a chance to do so much. His death is the most recent and one I still feel isn’t quite real. He never got to get married or have a family, but I remember the little boy he was when he was seven and his laughter was meant to be shared with others. My Aunt Linda was developmentally disabled, and so making friends was hard for her. Most of my biological family ignored her or put her down, it was only me and my grandmother who paid her any attention and made a point to know her. I could never get into her head, and even though I inherited all of her notebooks and diaries when she died I still can’t. She made lists, and I wish I could understand them, but they still make me smile. Something tells me we are a lot alike, and maybe people find it easier to understand me, but I feel like we shared a heart. I felt that when I was eight, which is why I tried so hard. I would call her after school, and do puzzles with her, whatever she wanted. I wasn’t doing it out of pity; there was this connection that I felt. No one in the family really “got me” and no one “got her” but I was pretty sure that we understood each other as much as it was possible. I gave her eulogy when she died, even though I was only thirteen years old; we were that close. I felt like honoring Matt and my Aunt Linda; doing what they were never able to do was more appropriate this year. Not because I thought it, but because I felt it.
So this year we celebrated my dog’s birthday (I can’t believe she’s seven!) because she is my daughter. I found her when she was just days old, bottle fed her; I was the first thing she saw when she finally opened her eyes (I found her when she was still hairless and she didn’t open her eyes until the third day I had her). We celebrated it with good friends, more than that – chosen family. A fellow redhead, who I have known since college, and her wife. They have two dogs we always dog-sit for, and Angel (my dog) and their dogs have a great time together. (They’re like cousins!) There is this doggie bakery that makes healthy fresh-baked treats and birthday cakes. The dogs had a blast and then we had a blast, grilling individual pizzas we each made ourselves (I just did the dough and sauce ahead of time, but everyone got to do their own cheese and toppings) and then had ice cream cake that looked like a big watermelon.
The next day, Memorial Day itself, we had Roy’s brother and his kids over for a nice dinner. We grilled bratwursts, and had corn and fries, and then more of the ice cream cake from the previous day. Our niece and nephew (twins) are almost four, and wow. I’m still exhausted. They are so much fun but Roy manned the grill while I pulled twin duty (for the record, I would not have it any other way). We haven’t seen them in a few months because Roy and I traveled and were crazy busy for two months, and then they traveled for a couple of weeks, so it was so good to see them. Now that we have no out-of-town plans for awhile, I hope we visit them soon. (We didn’t get to see our youngest niece so it’s a good excuse to get up to their farm sooner rather than later.)
It was just a good couple of days, surrounded by people we love. Family – those we have chosen and those who have been chosen for us. It was the best of both worlds, and our place was busy and happy and messy and wonderful. It’s the only circumstances where I find “messy” to be wonderful. That being said, the time I spent with the twins made me aware of one thing. If I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom to our kids, I’m going to need help because I have no idea how to do that every day. Serious respect… But then again, as this weekend has reinforced when we get to that point we’ll have help – family, friends and loved ones.
It felt good to do something different this year. I felt like I wasn’t just paying tribute to those I remember on Memorial Day, but for the first time I was living it, and honoring those memories. For the first time on Memorial Day – smiling was the most natural thing in the world…
Below are last year’s Memorial Day posts.