Last night my sister did the math. If she lives to be eighty years old, she’ll have five more biennial visits to the family summer place in Maine. Five. Five more family get-togethers on an island we’ve known since we were kids.
We were Zooming, all five of us, from Australia, California, Arizona, Minnesota and Connecticut, and we took in the news with appropriate sobriety. My youngest brother said, “Maybe you’ll live to ninety.” My sister, the Minnesotan, said, “Sure, but who’s going to drive me?” She’s afraid of flying and has big dogs besides. My youngest brother said, “I’ll drive you.” My older younger brother said, “I’ll drive you.” My youngest sister offered both her sons as drivers, even though that’s dicey and we all know it because Australians drive on the other side. I said, “I’ll drive you, but by the time you’re ninety I’ll be eighty-eight.” Not a good idea, we decided. “I’ll take the plane,” I said. “Maybe it’ll be safe to fly by then.”
It feels good to talk about mortality before it starts to weigh you down. Especially in a close family of people who will miss you when you’re gone. I can’t yet imagine life without my siblings, though my older younger brother tried to slip out in his thirties when he was mugged and suffered traumatic brain injury. I feel some relief to be the second oldest in our lineup. The grief of loss has long felt heavier to me than the fear of death. If we die in order, and there’s as good a chance as any that we won’t, I’ll only have to grieve my older sister. Sometimes I try and imagine stepping into her shoes, but it’s fruitless. Her shoes are hers and mine are mine.
I once had the pleasure of driving Heid Erdrich, the poet (though as things go, perhaps better known as the sister of Louise), to Tuba City to teach a poetry class to 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-graders. Crossing the Little Colorado River she said, “There’s a lot of similarity between Ojibwe families and the old Puritan families of New England.” I was interested and asked her to say more. “Well,” she said, “for example, my people gather in the summer in our summer hunting grounds. It’s the time for family reunions, for celebrating those who survived the winter and mourning those who did not. It’s a sacred time, a time for remembering where we come from and memorializing our kin. The old New England families have their summer places where they go to do the same.”
I’m a New Yorker, so not exactly of an “old New England family,” but close enough. We had a few Puritans who drifted up to Massachusetts a long time ago, but the rest were relative newcomers—Scots, Germans and a large handful of hungry Irish who got off the boat and stared at those Irish need not apply signs for several decades before they got a foot in the door. But as soon as the door opened, they followed the same instinct to come together, always just about the time the mosquitoes showed up.
So for all of you with a lake house memory, or a shore house memory, or if you’re experiencing, as I am, the thwarted seasonal urge to get together with family, know that you’re in good company. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the loss is being felt. My solution is to revise my definition of family to soften the feeling of longing. A friend came over the other day and brought me an apron she’d made. Family. Another friend loaned me her grommet set. Family. Another said, “Here’s a loaf of bread. You look like you could use it.” Family. We’re trying to help each other. We’re happy to do it. I talked to my sister on the phone and said, “Look. Five get-togethers is five get-togethers. That’s not so puny. And if you have five, I only have six. If that’s what’s on offer, we’ll take it, right?” “Right,” she said. “We’ll take it.”
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