My mom grew up in a three room house on the prairies in Canada. She had seven brothers and sisters. They did not have running water and my grandmother cooked on a coal stove.
One of my favorite memories is the time I slept over at my grandma and grandpa’s with my cousin Shelley. I woke up wrapped in one of my grandma’s homemade quilts in their soft, comfy bed, light shining brightly through the bedroom windows. My grandparents stood in the doorway with grins on their faces, “Are you sleepyheads ready to get up?!” My tiny grandma laughing her big, hearty laugh.
It never donned on me to ask where they had slept since Shelley and I slept in the bed.
Later I asked my mom and she only said, “Well, where do you think they slept?” I gave her a blank stare. She responded, “They slept in the same place they slept when me and Aunty Betty and all of the rest of us lived at home – on the floor or the couch in the living room, so we could have the bed and be rested up for school.” I remember thinking about my aunts and uncles, wondering how they all squished into that one bed. I had a lot of questions for my mom that day. She told me stories about the little ones sleeping horizontally in the bed, as many as they could fit. The bigger kids slept in the living room with my grandma and grandpa, all spread out like a big sleepover – every night until they started leaving home one by one.
When I was growing up, I never thought of my grandparents as poor. I thought of them as kind and warm and generous and love. Because that’s what they were. I never thought of my mom and her siblings as going without because whenever we were together, which was a lot, they shared stories about milking cows and making butter and planting gardens with my grandma while my grandpa was out of town working on the road.
That three room house held all seventy or more of my family members every Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving, somehow with room to spare. My grandma made the best perogies and raspberry jam and dinner buns I’ve ever tasted. She dragged me on more berry picking expeditions, held back more thorns than any grandmother ever should – just so I could fill my little pail with wild strawberries and understand how real things, the best things, are made. She catered weddings and baby showers and everything in between. Her deep freezes were always full and her hands were always giving something away.
That, to me, was a rich person. It is a rich person.
A couple weeks ago one of my uncles passed away after a brief but brutal battle with lung cancer. He was not old. In his final days he asked repeatedly for all of his siblings to come together and be with him. Several were already there, the rest came as fast as they could.
I noticed they began staying over night. At first one by one and then slowly in small groups, taking turns resting to make sure someone was always there. I wondered, did they realize they had recreated their childhood sleeping arrangements – everyone together, the older ones on one shift, the younger ones on the other?
It made me sad for them. And scared. If I’m being honest, also for me.
Growing up in a big family built on love is a wonderful thing. Aunts and uncles are like extra parents, cousins like siblings. Then one day people begin being subtracted from the circle, each one leaving a hole that can never be filled. Memories swim around the massive void.
You feel like you’re going under.
I love my family. I’m not ready for this.
These days while most people seem to be in the business of new beginnings, I’m in the business of dying. Dying to self. Dying to the past. Dealing with the death of what was.
I could strike up some platitudes about starting over, but those don’t apply here.
Because this is the business of life.