Lost and Found, Part 2: Belonging
My purse is filled with funeral cards. It seems as if I had been averaging a funeral home visit twice a month for the last six months. I guess that is the trappings of aging with an aged family.
I headed out the next day, triple checking the viewing schedule on all my smart phones and electronic devices. With my constant travel partner in tow, we set off on an encore performance of the previous day’s plans. I debated on wearing the same dress from the day before, but after revealing myself at Burgerfest I thought better of it. Me arriving in town in similar fashion and appearance from the day before came across to me as too deja vu, too trapped in limbo. It was like adding another ghost to this ghost town.
It was strange venturing out to the same location. The day before, I felt this weird sense of loss and reflection and today everything felt a little forced. I think I may have been exhausted from yesterday’s circumstance. As I drove, my mind drifted back and forth to past and present and the limitations of yesterday.
I arrived at my cousin’s funeral, just as I did every other funeral this past year, not knowing what to expect. I was the outsider and I knew it. I almost felt I did not have a right to be there, like a ghost or relic from the past. I was interrupting the grieving of family who spent the last 17 years together, celebrating birthdays, backyard BBQs, life, death and day-to-day struggles together. Maybe I should have adorned yesterday’s clothing.
Wow, we have not seen you in ages… I am such and such’s daughter…
Entering the room, I saw familiar faces that had aged slightly since I last laid eyes on them. I walked in and was recognized by a few, to other’s I explained my lineage. I offered my condolences. We began chatting about our shared histories.
I remember my cousin being one of the kindest women I had ever known. She had always seemed to make family appearances and miscellaneous functions with my other, equally kind aunt. Aunt Linda and Aunt Lilly, they always seemed so inseparable, like soulmates. In fact their names merged into one entity when referred to by the family. AuntLindaandAuntLilly. It seems so sad to me now that death separates them.
Growing up, there were two or three houses of cousins all in a row. Our neighborhood not being the greatest and my mother’s fear of the decline that had taken over the town led us elsewhere on certain holidays. As an alternate to the traditional door to door tricks and treats, every Halloween we would get dressed up in our costumes, walk over to grandparent’s apartment to show off our costumes and get some treats. Then we would pile into our Oldsmobile and drive to the trifecta of houses my cousin’s lived in. The most glorious bags of candy would be waiting there for us. They were packed to capacity. It was more candy than you could EVER collect in one night even if you scoured five neighborhoods. At least that is what I speculated in my young mind.
I don’t remember when the Halloween adventures ended, just as I can’t pinpoint when we all eventually lost touch. My grandfather died in 1990. Four years later mother died. Then my grandmother passed away four years after that. My closest connective tissue to that part of the family had rapidly started dying off and my siblings and I were trying to navigate in our own little “brave new world” that existed without the parents and grandparents that had guided us. Time simply marched on.
I made my way around the room as Jack made friends with another cousin. They shared some goldfish crackers and talked shop. I began reintroducing myself to everyone and repeatedly telling my Halloween story. I get nervous in crowds and tend to talk… a lot. I think I was also trying to prove to myself (and others) that I had a right to be there, even when my cousins showed no signs of thinking I was out of place. In fact it was quite the opposite.
I began talking to another cousin’s wife and started to tell the Halloween story again. For some reason, I began to reflect on my words as I talked. It became less the rehearsed speech of a nervous person and more a story and heartfelt memory. I began to tear up as I repeated the same words of that same story. I thought of how AuntLindaandAuntLilly remembered to send us birthday cards every year without fail. I remembered being baby sat by another cousin, the cherry tomatoes we used to munch on laughing and talking in my living room, TV glowing in the background. I remembered the warmth I felt every time I was around those people.
We noticed the sounds of our respective sons cavorting in the back room and chuckled. I mentioned how sad it was that we all lost touch. How sad it was that most of my immediate family had passed away and that for my siblings, baring a few exceptions, there was not much of an immediate family left. She looked at me as if she understood my longing and feeling of loss of family on so many levels. Of course that may have been my perception of the moment, but in that instant, I felt a connectivity.
I gave my family a few more hugs and condolences as I was getting ready to leave. We were extended an invitation to their 4th of July celebration. Unfortunately, we were not able to attend because my husband had some major dental work done and needed cared for that weekend. I was sad we could not make it, but I hope to reconnect at their Labor Day extravaganza.
We got in the car and headed for home. We made one last stop at my old place on the way out. Jack wanted to see where I grew up.
Took a different route home than I normally do from this area. Instead of taking the parkway, I took the back roads through West Mifflin towards Century III Mall. There was one last place I wanted to see.
I wanted to live in that house. I constantly curious about the goings on there. The brick footbridge complete with the flowing creek underneath was always so romantic to me. Especially on our nighttime drives back from the mall. I stared longingly at this place each and every time we passed it. The warm glowing orange lights the space omitted at evening time was so inviting. On one of our nighttime travels, I passionately proclaimed how much I would love to live there one day. To this my mother responded, “Yeah it is lovely, but they probably have rats (because of that creek).” My mother had this gift of being both sharply acute and unknowingly obtuse all in one sentence. I think sometimes her overinflated sense of reality and practicality prohibited her from seeing the space in the gloriousness only my 13-year-old eyes could conjure and imagine.
I was irritated that my mother was so cautious, at times. But my mother’s love, fear, and harsh realities led to some brilliant Halloweens. I never tricked or treated until my son was born, but I thank her for giving us such a beautiful memory.
I made one last pilgrimage to my hometown the week following my cousin’s funeral. It was for the death of my godmother’s father who also happened to be my next door neighbor. He was the first person I ever knew to have tattoos. I think he got them while he was in the war. A blunt and funny man. They had a German Shepherd named Thor. He taught everyone in the neighborhood, including my mother, how to drive. My godmother asked if he taught me as well. I told her that he tried. He took me out on the highway to teach the basic rules of the road, but I guess my skill set was sorely lacking. He clutched the passenger seat with purpose. When we arrived back in Duquesne, he asked me to pull over at the local “Moose” so he could get out and grab a drink. I patiently waited in the car. Through all his years serving our country and his stature as the neighborhood driving guru, this 16 year old girl had somehow broken him. My godmother, her brother, and a few other funeral attendees laughed heartily at my story.
I spoke to the director of the funeral home for a few moments after that. He had buried most of my family including my mother. I always promised myself I would thank him for being so kind to us in the days after my mother’s death so I set out to do just that. He remembered me once I mentioned my last name. We talked a lot about our town’s decline and some of the residents that were no longer there. After a few moments, I shook his hand and made my way home. I recounted the past few weeks of mourning and revisiting the past. I always had a sense of not feeling like I belonged to anything on so many occasions. These few weeks of retelling bits and pieces of my childhood gave me a sense of being tied to something; of being part of a shared memory of a collected group of people; of being part of a town’s history, and the documenter of my own, still developing… something…