We’re prepared for a lot of things as we roll through middle age.
Thanks to Madison Avenue, we have our wrinkle creams, our hair dyes, our botox injections, our medicines for things that can’t get up and things that won’t go down. We take longer vacations to Florida or Arizona in the winter and spend more time in the summer at the cottage. We don’t camp in tents anymore, but we love to have the grandchildren or great-nephews in pup tents in the backyard. We go to 35th high school reunions and 40th university reunions and remark on how great everyone looks! We gather for the weddings of our best friends’ children and send christening gifts when we become honourary grandparents, kidding our friends about being “Grandma and Papa” now.
And yes, we think about our mortality a little, just enough to do some estate planning maybe, certainly write a will, definitely think about how long those retirement dollars will last. But what we’re really not prepared for is other people dying.
It’s the natural order of things that our parents die before we do – at least, that’s what parents want, to go before their kids. Of course we know that that’s what’s going to happen. But when it does, we’re still shell-shocked. And then, slowly but surely it’s not just our parents, but our godfather and our uncle and our cousins who are dying, and suddenly that close, expansive, joyful world of family and friends-who-might-as-well-be-family is smaller, tighter, sadder because people are dying.
And it’s not just that we’re aging: our children and nieces & nephews are growing up and bringing new partners into the circle and it’s not what it was. It’s not who we are any more… it’s who we were.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot through the winter. My cousin Jeff died just over a year ago, my dear father-in-law died late last fall, and just a couple of months later, my cousin, my father’s much-loved cousin, Janet Stewart Prince, died from the complications of Parkinson’s. Ross would have been the first one to mourn her, after her children, Judith & Stewart, of course. They were buddies all their lives and I know she felt his loss deeply when he died 11 some years ago.
Aunt Janet, as we called her, and Uncle Walter are woven into the fabric of my life. They dominate memories of my childhood at the cottage in Oliphant, along with Uncle Walter’s brother’s family (Uncle Jack & Aunt Elaine and their boys, including my first ‘fiancee’, Cam), Aunt Janet’s sister, another cousin, Aunt Margery & Uncle Jack and their boys, and the Bennett families (Uncle Cam & Aunt Mary and their children, Uncle Jim & Aunt Patsy and their children), and in later years, we were thrilled to also welcome to every day life at Oliphant my Uncle Bruce (Dad’s ‘baby’ brother) and Aunt Patty. When I think of beaches and swimming and fishing and sailing and boating and water-skiing and softball and picnics in the dunes behind the cottage, I think of these people and the Dixon boys and Dougal Robertson (another cousin!). Eating wieners on a stick and burnt marshmallows and I think of them. Playing games of Red Rover and British Bulldog and I think of them. Biking down to the general store for ice cream cones and I think of them.
Just as a little aside, I have story Aunt Janet used to tell on herself which I never fail to think of when baking. She didn’t. Bake, that is, but some occasion called for her to do so, probably a tea, or maybe a funeral. In any case, she bought a box mix for brownies, thinking that these had to be easy to do. And they were! She followed the instructions for pre-heating the oven and prepping the baking pan, and then adding eggs and oil to the brownie mix. Then she got to the next part. Which she read twice and said, “Oh well….” and went to roll up her sleeves and wash her hands thoroughly because the instructions said: MIX BY HAND. It took her a sticky, chocolatey moment or two to realize that perhaps they meant stir, WITH A SPOON, by hand and not a mixer.
They were all of a kind, these adults who filled my childhood. They worked hard and contributed much. They raised pretty large and fairly happy families for the most part, they loved good martinis & Oliphant just about equally, and they asked for very little back except to enjoy a good life. I think most of them got it, most of the time, and if things didn’t always turn out the way they might have hoped when they were children and teenagers, I hope with all my heart that they know that the one thing that did turn out was giving us the very best of childhoods.
There will be a memorial service for Aunt Janet on Saturday, the day before Stewart celebrates his birthday, the day before what would have been my father’s 82nd birthday! My joyful heart is aching that I cannot be there — sad to miss the people I love, happy to share in heart and mind so many, many wonderful memories.
Dear Judith & Ross, Dear Stewart & Mary… I hope your hearts and those of your children are also joyful this weekend especially, even as they ache.