Believe me when I say that it’s not easy to come up with a genius blog idea when cruising down the highway in a twelve passenger van with a few handfuls of my family deep in conversation around me.
But it’s Sunday. It’s blog day. So I’ll give it my best.
We’re on our way to the train station in Fairfield, Conneticut. From there, we’re taking the train into the city. New York City, baby! I love New York City. But you know what I love even more?
This group of family that surrounds me. This group of charming, funny, fallible, odd and loving people who I got blessed with are the best gift that God ever gave me.
There’s Papa at the helm. Constantly vigilant, eyes scanning the roads, he won’t leave a gas station without making sure we’re all belted safely in our seats.
Mom’s riding shotgun, navigating with the help of her iPhone and, as usual, seamlessly encouraging each of us in turn, with her gentle interjections and kind words.
I’m behind mom, blogging of course and getting teased, as is par for the course, by the rest of my siblings. My brother’s reminding me about that one time he shared my blog on Facebook, due solely to a guilt trip. One sister, Marie, chimes in, joking that a guilt trip might have prompted a like or two on her part as well. My oldest sister, Jen, loyal to the core, assures me that she reads my blog every week, no guilt trip required.
The third generation fills the back half of the van, my kids and my brother’s newly shy with each other again, relearning each other. There’s always a learning curve when you live across the country from each other and see one another so infrequently. This time though, it hasn’t been that long. We were just out to Long Island to see them four months ago in the Spring. What brings us out again so quickly, you might wonder. Grandma died a few months ago, and we have come together in New England, 50 or so of us, to celebrate the life she lived, a century of living and we are her legacy.
Yesterday was the memorial service. We gathered at a church in Connecticut, right across the street from the Fairfield Town Hall, where Grandma herself worked in planning and zoning for twenty years. There we caught up with second cousins twice removed, great aunts, and family friends so long entertwined with our family, the have become aunties and uncles and cousins, lack of blood ties long forgotten. We embraced, we chatted, we told stories about this matriarch we celebrated. Every story had a theme, from the speeches at the memorial service to the chit-chat on the church lawn, to the grandma tales told ’round the tables at lunch. Grandma was a woman who appreciated family. We admitted that she was flawed, we joked about her high strung nature and tendency to overreact, but we praised her for the lifelong effort of creating and tending to strong family bonds. Gay Conklin was a woman who loved her family. Everyone mentioned receiving her handwritten notes, kindly forgetting to mention that they were sometimes impossible to decipher. We’d pass around Grandma’s cards squinting and peering at the thin scrawled hand, trying to crack the code. My mother always had the most luck, “Yes, she wishes she was here with us. That’s what she says.” Whether she was reading grandma’s writing or intentions remains unclear to me still.
At lunch after the service, we roamed from table to table freely, like a game of familial musical chairs, distributing hugs and gently reminding each other of our connections. Over and over the joke was repeated and twittered over: “This is just what Grandma Gay would have wanted, all the family together and focused on her.”
Lunch lasts three hours when you have fifty people to love.
That was yesterday, today we head into the city with just my nuclear family. Three generations left now without Grandma. My mother shifted years ago into the role of matriarch, hub of the family wheel, since Grandma’s Alzheimer’s started robbing her of the nuances of connection. We would say, “At least she still remember us,” each time we visited the nursing home. And she did, inasmuch that her face lit up with joy each time we paraded in. She knew we were her people, there to fawn over her and bring some variety to her day, but she grew more fuzzy on the details each day, unsure which of us were her children, her grandchildren, or rather a passing nurse.
So it’s mom now who bears the torch emblazoned “family” and she does it so well. The quintessential mama hen, her stepchildren and children alike call her “mom”. So do many of the friends we have brought home over the years. One of them in fact is meeting us in the city today. She will slip seamlessly into the group, as she has before and Mom will have another child for a day.
It is beautiful this thing that we call family. It is something better and stronger than the sum of its parts, yet somehow fragile. It is my grandmother’s legacy and my mother’s joy and someday it will be my responsibility to tend to. It transcends the who; this group has been a fluid one, changing over the years with births and deaths, marriages and divorces. It goes beyond the where; we have gathered in Hawaii, Florida, Arizona and New York. It’s not about the what; we’ve done Disney, played cards, eaten so many meals, and journeyed into a city. The why eludes me. Our personalities are so different, we so frequently hurt each other’s feelings and rub each other the wrong way. I know other families have splintered and divided under such pressures.
I don’t understand and lack the terms to define it, and this humbles me, that something so close to my heart and integral to my identity is so elusive.
Here’s what I do know. I love these people, deeply and madly and unreservedly.
And you know what?
It’s just what Grandma would have wanted.