Recently, my family said goodbye to the last of a generation. I experienced my first and hopefully last, live-streamed funeral service. I am so grateful that we had that opportunity to ‘say goodbye’, even if it was online. My heart is hurting and there is already a hole where my Great Aunt Dolly once held a special spot. Not just because I will miss her, because the truth is, it’s been a few years since we have been able to speak regularly, but because Aunt Dolly was the last one who had all the answers I needed.
Time marches on and we know that our end on this Earth is inevitable. I knew it like the matter of fact that it was for my first four decades. I have always felt badly for my parents, being from the generation before, as they were having to say goodbye to their parents and one friend after another as the years ticked on. The losses of my own loved ones hurt hard and are still felt today, but those losses still felt like the circumstance of their age, or of blips to the grand plan, but still felt distant from my own charted life course.
But as I near closer to my fifties, it seems I’ve shifted into a new understanding of how life works. I’ve somehow crossed a line where now, when the phone rings and it’s to let me know that we’ve lost someone, it’s no longer such a shock. Now, when I see the number of an old friend or relative on my call display, I anticipate the bad news. My own mortality is a reoccurring theme in my thoughts and writing. Don’t get me wrong – I have a lot of life in me. I complain so often that I am old and tired (and I am), but my passions, my excitement and my desire to keep learning and growing has me feeling often that I am still that same girl in high school with big dreams swirling in her head. It’s not the mirror that upsets or startles me. It’s not the birthdays. It’s when I take stock of who I’ve got left in my life.
All of my grandparents are gone now. One by one and each incredibly painful.
My lovely Nanna. The lady who I think loved me the best of all and showed me what kind of mother, or loving person that I could grow up to be. She is the foundation that I have grown my family from. She taught me all the things she could, from crocheting and darning a sock, to playing gin rummy, picking the perfect wild strawberry, to saving every last thing in case of another Depression. We lost her way too early to ovarian cancer when I was in my first year of university. I miss her every single damn day and see her in a million little moments. I was with her in her last hours and felt her spirit leave the room with her last breath, but am blessed to feel it with me in all of the years since.
Carl. My Gram’s second husband. He’s a tough one to describe, but he was over the top, crazy, simple, combattive, Jeckyll and Hyde, but loving, and LOUD and so damn proud of every single thing I did in this life. Carl once ran away from Centennial Hospital in Scarborough in the middle of his cancer treatment, and was found running for home on Ellesmere Rd. in his flapping hospital gown (that story may have morphed into an exaggeration in my memory, but even if it’s not 100% accurate, I guarantee it was 100% Carl). We lost Carl to cancer in my early 20’s but I can still hear his voice telling me I’m going to make a great lawyer some day.
My Pop. My hero. Whenever I’m digging deep and searching for strength, he is who I think about. When the second plane hit the World Trade Centre towers and we realized that the world had shifted into new, scary territory, I was holding my newborn and felt an overwhelming terror that nothing was safe or certain. I called my Pop seeking the calm I needed so desperately. He lost his mom to influenza in England and at four years old, he was shipped with his sisters to Canada as a ‘Home Child’. He fought in WWII. He suffered the loss of his one year old Down Syndrome daughter. And still he persevered humbly, proudly and stoically. Intensely private, he started opening up to me after my Nan died; I had so many questions, but never enough time to get all the answers. He was a limitless pool of wisdom and knowledge and losing him was the loss of the most valuable resource I’ve ever had.
Big Jim Conners. My Gramps. He was the most charismatic character I’ve ever known and he drove me crazy! all at the same time. You couldn’t count on him to follow through or stay in touch but you could always count on him to say something that would hurt your feelings and rarely with an apology. BUT. He gave the best bear hugs and there was no one on Earth I wanted to please more. He played the best version of Orange Blossom Special of any other fiddle player I’ve ever heard. He believed everything he read in the Enquirer and his own stories were just as unreliable. But we all loved him. So much. I brought him out to Calgary to stay with my family so he could see the Rocky Mountains and spend some time with me and my boys, hoping that we could work on the family tree. Instead, he slept through most of his stay and neither of us realized the altitude was depriving his diseased lungs of oxygen and likely only speeding up his death and he died shortly after his return home to Ontario weeks later. I am still sorry for that, though grateful we had that special time.
Gamma. My best friend in the end. Her loss is still too fresh for me to write about. We’re supposed to pretend that losing a loved one who has lived to a ‘good ole age’ is something that needs no crying over. But losing your person is hard no matter what age they are. My Gram has had my back like no one else since my twins were born in 2003. She had made so many screw-ups in her life, some mistakes that may never be forgiven by her loved ones. She was harsh and rough around the edges, surly and one of the most negative people I knew when she set her mind to it. But my Gram loved us hard. The greatest gift she ever gave me was showing her vulnerability to me in a tearful desire to repair some of the damage she had caused. I experienced divine moments with her and was forever changed as she left this Earth with me whispering in her ear that it was okay to go. I carry her thumbprint with me for comfort and I speak to her every single day.
I am an old soul who pays tribute daily to those who came before me. I don’t know where it comes from. I am a forward thinker, progressive in my beliefs, but I respect the past and honour the lessons it has taught me. I have always had an intense curiosity about my family’s history and I drove all of my grandparents crazy with my questions. It was a natural progression to dive into genealogy when Ancestry.com became so accessible fifteen or so years ago.
My regret.. is that it took until my maturity into middle age to dive into family tree research and by then, I had lost most of my story-keepers and story-tellers. Finding records of birth, marriage and death is the easy part. Even when you have to send requests to little churches across the oceans, to find more information. I love tracing the historical roots of my family. It’s even more exciting with the introduction of DNA and finding long-lost cousins and hard proof that you are who you thought you were. But that’s not what drives me in this hobby of mine.
I have an intense desire to know the lives of the generation I have just lost. When I was born, I mattered to my three great-grand-parents who were still alive. I have photos that show them holding me as a newborn, proudly. Soon, they won’t have many who are still alive to remember them and their time on Earth. My own children will not be able to tell the stories of my own grandparents. I don’t want a gravestone to be the only proof that they existed. I want them to be remembered for who they were, for the contributions they made to the world.
My two grandfathers had tragic starts to their life. Both orphaned before the age of five, they were rejected and neglected in so many ways by their remaining family. It shaped them both in different ways and knowing them both in their later years, I don’t really think I could even fathom either man as a child. It wasn’t until they were gone and I saw their lives mapped out from my research, that I started seeing it for what it was. They were lost little boys, without mothers or fathers to love them and both were miracles for having survived their upbringings and being as successful as they were. I know that there was a lot they never learned about their own lives and histories, that they wish they had known.
So now I feel that it’s my job to fill in those question marks. Fill the holes. Put together all the pieces, all the stories of all of my grandparents, so that future generations can know who they were. It’s my way of honouring them. But how do you do that when there are no more story-keepers?
My Aunt Dolly was the last one. She was my Nan’s younger sister and she held the key to so much information. I pestered her nearly ten years ago and she shared so much to help me out. But there is so much more I didn’t realize I needed and now it’s too late. Our older adults are treasures. Their stories and memories are what keep that generation alive. Once they’re gone, it’s too late.
If I could offer any advice to someone who has an interest in working on their family tree: don’t wait. Your last story-keeper may not be able to share it with you tomorrow. Ask as many questions as you can. Take the time to visit your grandparents, your great aunties and others who knew your loved ones when they were young. Write it all down. Record your conversations and transcribe them later. Scan all the photos, find out who’s who before everyone is gone and you no longer know who “Larry” is without having a last name to attach with it. Gather all the info you can before it’s too late.
I am proud that I valued my time and conversations with my Gram while she was still here. I picked her brain and bugged her for information and I know it brought her joy to dig into her memory and talk about the old days.
Talk to your story-keepers. Encourage them to be story-tellers. This is how we can honour them while they are still with us.
I’m trying my best to pay it forward by dealing hope and sharing stories & tips on caregiving and how to survive hard things. I blog a lot about single parenting my adult twin sons who both have autism, and the challenges we face in surviving the everyday challenges and planning for a future full of unknowns.
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