The lives of those we love and who love us, tie us to this earth as surely as gravity. Each one we lose breaks another tether holding us to a world that is warm and familiar. They are our security much more than money and the material. And each one we lose brings us that much closer to being set emotionally adrift on a planet that seems increasingly cold and distant.
But, unfortunately, it is usually when we come to the last years of our life, that we can fully appreciate those who were vital to us at the beginning. They were the people who nurtured us, guarded us, and brought bright little packages of humor and knowledge and common sense to the formation of what we call self. They showed us the quality of mercy and loyalty, and understanding. And there was the undeniable tie of friendship — those who are not bound to us by DNA, but by the blood of the heart.
There’s an old adage that says it takes a village to raise a child. The people who touch the life of a child — neighbors, merchants, the church — are vital ingredients in the making of a full-grown member of society, whether for good or bad.
My village was my family, extended family, church, and my closest neighbors. The first vital tie that broke was the death of my Grandfather McDaniel in 1958, followed two years later by my Grandmother McDaniel. She was only 63, younger than I am now. I was ten when Papa died, and have no memory of how I felt. But it was at the funeral of my Granny McDaniel that I experienced grief for the first time that memory allows. A part of that grief was for Granny, but most of it was for my dad, whose silent tears would not stop flowing.
My brother Paul was three and a half years old. Dad had parked the car on the hillside overlooking the graves spread out below. The fresh one was obvious and new at the farthest end. Paul was too young to understand the full meaning of death. A beautiful little boy, just coming out of the toddler stage, he stood on the front seat between mama and daddy, constantly wiping the tears from dad’s face, petting him, and saying, “Please don’t cry, Daddy. Please don’t cry.” That child and his helpless attempt at consolation of the inconsolable broke my heart. It felt like there was an aching hole in my chest that would never heal. Not for granny, but for dad, and the little boy who only wanted his daddy to be okay. All Paul knew of tears was that they came when something hurt.
I’ve experienced many griefs since then. The most powerful was my mother’s in 2011. Though I grieved in my heart for Dad, my Mom had to be cared for and became a member of our household that January day in 1999. Most of my grief for dad came suddenly and unexpectedly at the oddest of times. Most of the time it came when I was driving, and I had to pull off on the shoulder wracked by emotions so powerful I couldn’t stop shaking.
But I had precious little time to indulge my grief. I had my mother to take care of full time now. All her life she had been plagued by mental problems, which had steadily grown worse. As the years followed years in my home, where she had less stress and her medications were taken when and as prescribed, she steadily became calmer, able once again to read books — even classics — and to enjoy puzzle-solving on Wheel-of Fortune.
Eventually she was able to attend church and became a beloved and much-coddled member. I got to know my mother in ways I would never have been able to but for her daily presence in my life. And after all those years, her death sent me reeling into a depression so deep, it has taken me years to even begin to climb out. How deep was it? When a doctor asked if I was suicidal I smiled and said, “No, but I’d take a bullet for the President and I don’t even like him.” (The doctor was not amused). This blog, The Village Smith, was a stepping stone out of that black hole.
Over the years of being a caregiver, I have sat by the side of aunts and uncles and cousins and comforted them as they were dying. Or tried to. It was then I began to feel the emptiness they left behind. Beloved people, who helped make up who I am, were gone. Yes. I believe in Heaven, and my prayers have always been that each one would come to know the saving grace of Christ. But the absence of their spark of life here on earth is vitally missed. And as the years go by, and I lose more and more, the ties that bind me here become fewer and fewer. Not that I don’t love life and look forward to new adventures. It’s just that much of the shine has been rubbed off when I suddenly get excited about sharing something with someone, and realize they are no longer here.
My aunt Lois Duncan died Sunday. I went to her funeral yesterday. She was my Uncle Shelly Duncan’s wife. They used to come visit us when I was a child, and we would visit them, or all of us would be at Papa and Granny Duncan’s where all the cousins would enjoy playing, fighting, and getting into trouble. Lois was as much a part of my life as any of the blood-tie aunts and uncles.
I remember once a whole bunch of relatives came to visit from both the McDaniel and the Duncan side. It was hot summertime and we all went trooping across the road to a stream nearby to swim and wade. (This was in the late fifties, by the way). Unlike me, Lois was tall and elegant, and I thought her beautiful in her bathing suit. One of dad’s nephew’s who was a teenager at the time — and a real card and cutup — took one look and said, “You have beautiful legs. Looks like Roy Rogers’ horse’s legs.” Well, she did have long, beautiful legs, and, now I think on it, Trigger’s legs were nicely shaped, too. But I don’t think Lois appreciated the comparison. I think my McDaniel cousin got smacked by a Duncan.
At the funeral yesterday, there were cousins I had not seen in many years. At the viewing, we tried, in a few minutes time, to span those years with catch-ups. One of those cousins, a truck driver from out west, confided that most of his life had been ruined by drugs and alcohol. But ten years ago, he said, he had turned his life over to the Lord, and by His grace was now really living life. We discussed the Bible and his new life journey. It was a wonderful moment for me. Another cousin wanted to set a date to come go through the trunk where he had collected family pictures and memorabilia. He said he had also collected some of my newspaper articles, which surprised me. He has truly become a family historian.
Then there were the children, teens, pre-teens, and young women and men, that I didn’t know, but who were members of this large extended clan. My cousin Larry Duncan’s wife, Brenda, took my hand and led me around introducing me to some, and offering the hospitality of a meal spread out in the snack room, since the funeral was at one o’clock. Later, I sat in a comfortable chair by the wall and people-watched. A young mother whose children were getting fractious, asked them please to let her finish her conversation with their aunt. It went through one little ear and out the other. A young girl sat by herself across from me, momentarily at loose ends. When I caught her eye, I smiled and told her I loved her boots. That’ll bring a return smile right away from a young girl.
As I sat there, observing, watching, I felt a warmth come over me surrounded by these kinfolks, both young and old and in-between, most of whom didn’t know me from Adam, but who were tied to me by blood. I knew, because I have just about all their names down in my family tree and some of their pictures. And I realized, the family will go on, and on.
But as I passed Lois’s casket, trying desperately to walk without falling in my too high-heeled boots, I knew I would see her again one day. But her passing has broken another tie that binds me.
See the story of our last visit with Aunt Lois in :Duncan Cousins’ Day Out – More Fun Than A Barrel of Monkeys