I flew up to Indiana on Tuesday to be with Wilma Dean when her little brother passed away. Grandma is almost 88-years-old, and old Uncle Pete...he is still her “little brother.”
Pete was the tan-skinned, puppy-eyed boy--one of Ralph & Alma’s nine kids - who grew up to be an Indiana farmer like his dad before him, and was known as the one who chased you down to plant big, wet kisses on your cheek no matter your age or gender.
When my dad and I drove into the town that seems barely a town, and walked into the humble funeral home whose door opens into the street, I didn’t expect to feel so much really. I was there to support Grandma...and maybe also because some small part of me is awakening to the fact that something is being lost.
Something I was never certain about until now.
Roots were a vague idea to me, as we moved from army post to post while cousins and great aunts and uncles shared life together in the Midwestern fields.
These people who climb the branches of our family tree were part of the landscape of my childhood, but I wasn’t convinced we had much in common. I could never keep the names or lineage straight when we visited, and as much fun as those annual family reunions with the long folding tables in Uncle Bob’s garage were, it was just one day each year or two...and I felt my siblings and I were sort of the odd ones out. Welcomed...loved, but…visitors.
Often when we can’t have something, we decide we never really wanted/needed it anyway.
But when I stepped into the funeral home and felt the hot grief in my chest and behind my eyes and I couldn’t stop the relentless flood, I knew it wasn’t only for Uncle Pete, or for kind Aunt Frankie, now widowed, or for young Brandon and Kinnea, who have shared daily life with their Grandpa Pete.
It was for all of these faces gathered together, these hearts that knew my Dad when he was a boy and watched my parents fall in love...the only people left in this world who knew and loved my great-grandma, whom I also loved.
These who have followed our life journeys across states and seas and have cared for my grandparents in our absence. Our roots really are entwined, and they are beautiful, interesting humans, and there is something good between us.
But the nine are now two. Those kids grew up and started something, and now just two remain - Grandma and her baby sister, and what did we make of the time? Why didn’t I know all their names? What stories were left untold? What will happen to the tree when the last of the nine have gone?
I am not afraid. But I am struck that the connection, however fragile, does actually matter. To ME. I did want it, afterall.
I have looked for them in a spiritual sense, allowing the warm body of believers around me to be my extended family since I left home. There is that. The Church. Good roots. Faithful branches that hold.
And maybe that’s all you’ve got.
Or do you feel you have nothing but parched roots and broken branches, because your family is gone or they are here but torn in some way worse than absence, and you don’t realize there might just be a way to find siblings, parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents yet...
It’s really never too late to start a family.
It’s not too late to start digging for roots.