Change and Loss

One of my pieces in Serving Up Memory is entitled “Hats and Cornbread,” and it begins by telling of the Thanksgiving after my mother’s passing. My father had predeceased her by two years, and so we were, her children and grandchildren, trying our darnedest to make this holiday festive. By golly, we were not going to let the grim reaper steal our joy.

A number of us, including two of my siblings and I, gathered on Chesnut Street with a  “take-in” meal. I don’t recall the victuals, but I do remember that we ate in the kitchen and not the dining room and that we felt strange and happy at the same time—strange because our parents weren’t there in their own home and happy that we were together. At some point, we rummaged through our parents’ (and grandparents’) hats, and we each selected the one we wanted to wear. My nieces picked up pocketbooks of my mother’s, remembering that she always made sure her purse matched her shoes.

When I submitted that story to the group for critiquing, I wasn’t expecting the feedback that I received. I expected every person to make recommendations for improvement, and I even wondered if a couple of writers might think the story too sappy. Boy was I surprised!

Sure, there were some recommendations, but the consensus was that the events of that Thanksgiving afternoon had universal meaning. Although it was a personal story, “Hats and Cornbread” has implications for every family who has suffered loss or change, whether by death, divorce, remarriage, relocation, or any other reason. People leave us, and we are left to rebuild the structure of not just holidays, but of everyday life.

Back to that Thanksgiving afternoon, here’s the passage about it from Serving Up Memory:

We wore our hats hoping to keep that holiday spirit alive. Did it work? Not really. The picture snapped by my son-in-law late that afternoon looks like everyone is having a good old time, but looks can be deceiving. Despite our fake smiles, we were all still heartbroken, our psyches raw with fresh grief.

It probably hit me for the first time that evening: My family holidays with kith and kin in the manner I had known all of my life were over. Sure, I’d share turkey and dressing, red velvet cake, and other seasonal fare with various relatives each year, but my mother’s passing on October 20, 2000, marked the end of gatherings in the family home. Marjorie Ann was the heart of it all. It was never the same after her passing.

As the season creeps nearer each day, thoughts of earlier gatherings and traditions fill my mind. John and Margie’s children have all moved on, yet we hold those memories of love and good cheer in our hearts. I have other families on my mind today, and I hope that they’ll all find their way into and through the holidays without stumbling or experiencing crippling heartache.

The death of a loved one, regardless of age or status, changes everything. You can’t ignore the loss, the empty place at the dining room table. And yet you must not succumb to grief. As I write this, I’m thinking of dozens of people whose holiday season has been unalterably changed, some just within the last few days. I’m hoping they’ll all find a way to feel peace.

Unspeakable Sorrow

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Just because I haven’t been writing doesn’t mean that I have run out of ideas or that I’m giving up on it. Giving up on writing? Ha-ha. Might as well give up on breathing. It’s something that I’m compelled to do even if it’s just to jot a few items in my gratitude journal. Even if no one reads what I have to say, I still have to do it.

The recent loss of my stepson has unearthed many memories. Here are a few, all of which remind me (us) that human suffering is universal. While that knowledge doesn’t make grief disappear, it does help somewhat to know that if others have survived, so can we. Except for my great-grandmother, I’ve changed the names.

One fall evening many, many years ago one of my daughters and I were visiting an elderly lady who was a member of our  church.  We were chatting with her about a variety of topics while enjoying the ambience of her home and the sweetness of her company.  As we discussed the upcoming holidays, she told of her excited anticipation about seeing her son and his family.  Then she mentioned a daughter. A daughter?

“I didn’t know you had a daughter, Margaret,” I said.

After a moment, “Yes, she would have been 56 this year.”

Speechless (I know, strange for me), I waited quietly and then finally asked, “What happened?”

“She fell on her head out of an upstairs window when she was 3,” she said.

Totally caught off guard, I’m sure I gasped and asked, “Oh Margaret, I’m so sorry! How did you ever get over it?”

“I never did.”

A couple of summers ago my husband and I were traipsing around a cemetery outside of Ellenboro, NC, and I spied some headstones with Padgett on them. I took notes on some of the names and dates of their birth and death dates, and after a few minutes, I simply started taking pictures with my phone. There was so much to remember!

I saw a tiny grave marker and leaned down to read it. “Darling daughter” of Sidney and Minnie Padgett, I realized with a start that this was my grandfather’s sister who died several years before he was born!

Her name was Lillie, and she died when she was but 5 years old. How? Was she sick? Was her death an accident? My grandfather wasn’t born until three years later, and I wondered about my grandmother’s heartache. Was the untimely death of this small child the mystery behind all of the sad pictures of Grandmother Minnie?

On the way back to SC, I called one of my aunts to inquire about Lillie, and she confirmed what I had recently learned. She couldn’t add much to the story, however, and I realized for the umpteenth time that family history is rich and that we need to ask, ask, ask the people who carry it in their heads.

If I had known about my great aunt Lillie, I might have named one of my daughters after her. In fact, I’m sure of it.

And then there’s my friend Amy whose heart hurts for her son every single day (minute) of her life. His mortal life taken in an automobile accident when still a teenager, Matt’s early demise left a gaping hole in his family circle. After ten years, I continue to pray for solace for my friend.

And then there’s my Grandmother Padgett who lost a young child to scarlet fever. And there’s Sarah whose child was killed in an accident on Hwy. 17 years ago, an event so painful that Sarah got through her days “breath by breath,” not minute by minute. And there’s Traci whose daughter died shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. The horror of this event still haunts me, especially if I allow myself to think of Traci’s plane ride across America, desperately trying to get to her daughter’s side.

Then there’s my stepson’s death on Thanksgiving day.  Though his death was not quick and unexpected like most of the above, it was/is painful nonetheless. We’ve realized that while there are words like orphan and widow to describe the survivors of some deaths, there is no word in our language to describe the parent of a deceased child. No word to describe the unspeakable sorrow that my husband is experiencing.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the tragic losses experienced by parents. Last week, we learned of dozens more, thus making us realize the universality of pain and loss. It doesn’t make it any easier, but it does increase our empathy and our faith.