The last two weeks have been kind of heavy. There certainly has been no shortage of topics for this blog, but everything feels so loaded. I find that sometimes I need a little distance from things before I can write, especially topics which conjure feelings of anger or anxiety. Blogs on my upcoming cancer tests and the workings of student loans and social security are no doubt in my future. But right now all of this seems overshadowed by the fact that our family has recently experienced a great loss.
This past Saturday our Uncle Frank passed away. Most people I speak to think he was my father’s brother. When I explain that he was actually my great uncle, they seem confused at the extent of our grief. Perhaps to most people my age the loss of a great uncle would be blip; something to remark on and move passed. I have a lot of friends who barely knew their grandparents, so I can understand the confusion.
I remember in one of my early social studies classes, maybe in the fourth grade, learning about cultures that lived with their extended family. My teacher remarked on how different we as Americans were; how we grow up, move away, and live on our own. Although in some respects this is true, I remember thinking even then that maybe my family was a little different. Sure, my mother and father had their own home, but I spent a lot of time with my extended relatives. My mother was one of six, and her mother was one of twelve. I was ten when Nana passed and felt the loss of her keenly within our family. I felt like I knew Aunt Shirley, Polly, and Phillis. There was Uncle Bill and Uncle Joe and Uncle John and Uncle Harold. My grandmother’s siblings always had time for me and treated me like a favorite niece. I was never shooed into another room when they sat around the kitchen table and spoke. Instead I was taught to be respectful to adults; not to interrupt. I think because of this I didn’t go through a phase where older people scared me.
My relationship with my father’s side was a little different, but there was no less love. Aunt Karen showered me with affection. Grandma Sauers taught me how to cross-stitch and paint ceramics. There were trips to the beach in the summer and sledding in the winter out at the farm. Every Christmas we would see Uncle Frank or he would send packages and cards to my family with beautiful ornaments for the tree. I remember looking at old photos of me as a baby and asking my father who was holding me. Dad would tell stories of his Grandmother and Grandfather Ritter with great affection. He explained that Uncle Frank was a great artist.
As the years passed Uncle Frank spent a lot of time with my family. He and my father had always been close, as they seemed to share a quiet understanding of one another. When his partner passed, we saw him more and more. He would come to dinner and smile as people chattered on around him. Adrian and he would talk about art. Nathaniel took to visiting and helping him with the house and lawn when he could. Alex and Uncle Frank were two peas-in-a-pod. Alex could make Uncle Frank laugh like no one else.
So when I talk about losing Uncle Frank, I’m not talking about the death of a distant relative. For us, he was a fixture in our family. To me he was like having another grandfather. When he was became too sick to take care of himself he came to stay close to us, and we all saw him frequently. He was there for us when Alex had his accident and he was one of the few people in attendance for my wedding.
I’m having trouble winding this blog up. Anything that I could say seems trite at this point. We all loved him and he will be greatly missed, but that isn’t the half of it. A family in some ways is like a machine. Each person is a piece and serves a function. When one of those pieces is taken out, it’s not a matter of just replacing them. In fact, each piece is handcrafted and there are no duplicates. It takes time for the machine to rebuild itself and function when a part goes missing, and even then there is the memory that the machine once functioned differently. I guess we’re all still just picking up the pieces that are ourselves and trying to figure out where the gears and grease should go.