Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Janice Ann

Aunt J with my brother Daniel at my wedding.
I am very close with my extended family on my father's side. Twice a year, we get together and spend a few days under the same roof. This can often mean 20 or more people milling around a kitchen, reading books while draped over couches or going on roadtrips to blow off some steam.

My dad has three sisters who live all around the country and decided more than 20 years ago that if their children were going to actually know one another then they needed to provide this kind of intimate experience. And it has worked. For instance, this summer, my college-aged cousin called my husband "beard-face" with a certain tone of derision in her voice. I was delighted to realize that my first response to Jacob was to explain: "That's just Eliza. It's actually a compliment that she noticed you enough to insult you." If we lived in normal families, I would never know something that nuanced about her personality because of the more than 10-year age difference and 700 miles between us. Weddings and funerals wouldn't have been enough to teach me.

Being this close to my cousins actually makes wedding and funerals more intense and meaningful experiences. Many of you may remember that I spent the hour before I married cloistered away with my family, singing hymns, eating lunch and praying because that was the only thing I could think of that would ensure I was myself when I got married and not some stressed-out stranger in a bride's costume. Don't get me wrong, I experience a lot of stress being with them sometimes and I sometimes feel hurt or marginalized by their manic mob-mentality that requires a certain amount of looking out for one's own to have one's need met. But at the same time, I've never met a group of people more willing to make me a sandwich, to pray together that an enema will relieve someone's constipation, to forgive my ex-husband long before I could ever consider the option or to laugh at a self-deprecating story describing a pratfall or total boner mistake. They love me in all of my moods, even if they are the cause of some of the uglier ones. Can there ever be a better definition of family?

When we gather, we have recently begun bringing inspirational stories and obituaries with us to read aloud over breakfast. By the way, breakfast is the best part of the day. My mom makes perfect fried eggs to order with a side of toast grabbed the second the toaster pops and permeated with so much butter that it forms small white peaks. My Aunt Cynthia makes grits that can be garnished with so many variation of dairy, both sweet and savory. We read newspapers and get on each other's nerves as our different political leanings surface. We speculate when the teenagers will emerge from their rooms, bleary-eyed in pajamas with their hair sticking up in mats, looking around to see if someone saved their favorite doughnut for them by hiding it behind the cereal boxes. So, it seemed a natural extension to begin bringing other entertainments to extend that magical time together.

It started as a way to make my dad cry. He's kind of a sucker for a well-written obituary, describing a life of quiet heroism or the small miracles that often accompany the human drama of death and dying. It is family legend to remember the story of the woman who danced with her son at his wedding the day before she died since the couple had changed all their plans to accommodate her illness. Not a dry eye in the house for that one. And a lot of laughter at our own frailty. What goofs to cry. How vulnerable we are to dream that when hardship strikes, we might live up to these stories of everyday people being extraordinary.

My father is the oldest of the four children and the eldest of his younger sisters died over the weekend. It seems like she's spent the last 20 years fighting one form of cancer or another but, honestly, I still sometimes forget about the cancer when I think of her. It never defined who she was. Her personality was so strong and her relationship with God such a prominent part of her experience that the cancer seemed like a secondary characteristic of her identity, like the color of her eyes or her favorite book: cancer was a fact of her existence but not a defining feature. She could have gone into complete remission and it wouldn't have changed how she interacted with people. She loved people and wanted them to know God. I can only hope to want that for others as passionately as she did. She also had a wicked sense of humor, which included an inexplicable love for Vern and Ernest movies.

Now, let's be clear, of all my aunts, I butted heads with Aunt Janice most often. She had a lot of opinions about how life should be lived and these applied to everyone. None of this live and let live garbage. She was often vehement that people needed to be on the right path and I often disagreed - almost violently - with her definition of what "living right" entailed, as well as her own ability to fulfill her stated values.

But where else but in your family can you feel that way about a person and feel just as strongly that the world is a better place for her contribution?

As I have thought about my grief and the implications of my loss from the death of my aunt, I have pictured my extended family as a whole cloth that now has a little hole in it. The frayed ends at the edges of the hole are the people in the family for whom she was part of their daily life: Grandma, her daughters, her husband. They must be feeling so ragged. But her absence will also affect the experience of being with my family that I wrap around myself twice a year. Aunt Janice had patterns and rhythms to her participation that we have all come to rely upon. The whole cloth of our family will be changed. We will have to change to accommodate what's now missing.

One of my favorite sites is called Craftzine and it has all sorts of news and tutorials about how to make cool stuff. One of the tutorials shows how to fix a hole in a sweater by attaching yarn to the ragged edges and creating the patch within the hole. (Take a look here.) 
You can't go back to when the cloth didn't have a hole but you can restore the integrity of the garment. My family will be like that as we adjust. We've done it before when my grandpa died so I have no doubt that we'll do it again. Our resilience is why I keep coming back to my extended family: it keeps being strong enough to support me, as well as to make space for me to support them. 

We will begin gathering tomorrow for a funeral on Thursday. Aunt Janice's obituary was published today.
I hope that some other family reads it, tears it out to read over breakfast when they're all together and then laughs at this line, "Many people benefited from her 'lectures' whether they wanted to or not," and cries at this one: "She treasured her family. Her grandchildren brought her tremendous joy. Above all, her priority in all things was to serve and bring glory to her Heavenly Father." It would be a great tribute.