Sunday, April 2, 2017

Someone has to be the Bond villain...

My brother: He looks like he could play the evil wizard in a sci-fi movie.
Me: Who?
My brother: Uncle Bob.
Me: He sort of does, doesn't he?

I'm paraphrasing slightly but this is basically a conversation my brother and I had in the car earlier this week while in Detroit for our aunt's funeral. There is no mistaking that my uncles are my father's brothers (and my aunt fit right in but in a pretty, feminine way): they have the same nose (as does my brother), their hair has grayed in the same way/pattern although they each wear it differently, and they have similar mannerisms. I don't remember the last time all four of them were in the same room together for a significant amount of time. Sadly, it was probably at my grandmother's funeral (over 12 years ago). After my brother made the comment about Uncle Bob, I couldn't help but cast my dad and other two uncles in their respective villain roles, not because any of them are bad people but because this is how my brain works:
  • Chris would be the billionaire super genius Bond villain who owns an island (think Dr. No's Crab Key meets Atlantis from The Spy Who Loved Me - yes, this is a very specific reference but one my father and uncles would appreciate).
  • Phil would be the tech villain, wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting populace with sound operated drones. (This makes lots of sense if you know my uncle and his hobbies. Again, the family will find this more amusing than anyone else.)
  • My dad would be the retired military guy who uses a bird army to do his bidding. This would work for my me.
Everyone has a coping mechanism for grief and loss. Cleaning, stress-eating, exercising, extreme anger, internalizing all emotions - there's something for everyone. I prefer a mix of crying, (including, but not limited to, ugly crying, hitched breath crying, and silent crying), making jokes, and being extremely polite. Humans are actually the only species who can trigger crying for emotional reasons; tears are mostly used for keeping eyes properly lubricated or as a reaction to something in an eye (like dust) but there's no real scientific reason for why we cry in other situations. According to several articles I've read on crying, many scientists believe humans cry to form social bonds. Crying is a signal from one human to another that there's a problem or something that's causing an emotion (positive or negative). Shedding tears is also a sign of vulnerability and triggers empathy and comfort in others. So we cry to connect to another person and we react because we're wired to do so and not come off like jerks when someone needs a hug. There's no scientific proof that crying has any positive health benefits but that doesn't mean we can't believe it does. I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels better after crying. Crying and swearing are incredibly satisfying ways to get out emotions.

It's hard to believe that my aunt is gone. When I was younger, I thought my aunts and uncles would live forever (just like my parents). I couldn't imagine them being anything but the young people they were at that point in time. While she and I were not super close, we loved each other and I know that there are certain things I do in my life that she influenced. She never learned to drive (I got my license late in life at age 20). She loved to travel and enjoyed opera music. She was a kindergarten teacher for over 30 years. She loved her students and teaching. My favorite memories of her are from childhood when I'd get to help her set up her classroom for the new school year (she'd let me help with the bulletin boards). According to one of her colleagues, she was the best snowflake maker of all of the teachers in their group; she literally wrote the lesson on how to do this and they still use it to this day. She was artistic and creative, bringing art to life for her tiny students. I met one of her very first students who told me my aunt was her favorite teacher ever and it's because of my aunt that she became a librarian. Teachers, if you ever doubt that you have an impact on your students, please don't. After meeting this woman and reading online posts from other former students, I will never doubt the power of an exceptional teacher. Alzheimer's is a cruel disease and it's even worse to see it in someone so young (she was 66 when she died). My uncle took great care of her and you could feel how much love there was/is for both of them amongst their friends and colleagues. I didn't know anyone other than family at the funeral but they all had a kind word or a wonderful story about my aunt or my uncle or them as a couple. They all talked about how vibrant she was, even as the disease took its toll.

The other memories I have of my aunt are of her house. We'd usually visit Detroit during the summer or over a holiday so much of these trips was spent shuffling from one relative's house to another. Both sets of grandparents have very distinct houses that form the basis of most of my childhood memories of Detroit: the yellow house on Vinewood with the big backyard where I made mud pies until I couldn't add another layer of dirt to my clothes and the small house on Lola; I'm still not sure how my father, his four siblings, and my grandparents lived in that house but the back porch was a good hiding spot when I wasn't eavesdropping on my mom, aunts, and grandma gossiping at the kitchen table. My aunt's house was different; I never wanted to touch anything because it all seemed like it was in the perfect place and if I touched something the magic would disappear. Both she and my uncle collect things (Santas, Civil War artifacts, pottery, art) so there was always something interesting to see. You enter the house through a front porch (covered so maybe it's not a porch?) so it always seemed so formal to me as a child. There are stained glass panels in the windows which cast colorful shadows and patterns into the rooms during the day. The backyard was lush and beautiful; it was like stepping into a fairy tale. We didn't go there as often as my grandma's house but it always seemed like an occasion when we did (and it usually was for someone's birthday or a holiday so there was cake).

These are the things that ran through my mind during the visitation and the funeral and the after funeral reception: backyards, stained glass windows, and bulletin boards. Casting my uncles as villains in movies. Crying silently. Watching family dynamics play out in different versions of grief. Experiencing the true community of growing up in one place; my parents and their siblings went to high school together so they've been involved in each other's lives forever. My dad and my uncle (my aunt's husband) were altar boys together too. They all have stories for each other's stories and family lore that needs to be written down stat. Fun thing I learned on this trip: my great aunt Peggy supposedly dated/hung out with gangsters and teamsters. Sweet.

I don't know what it's like to live in one place all my life. That was not the life I had nor am I sure I would want that life but it's interesting to see the connections and relationships of people who do. For me, the closest thing I have to that is my work life. When I finally stopped the two year job hop (that's totally a thing people do in their early careers so don't judge), I found a community of people with who I felt at home and I stuck with them for 10 years. These were people who were/are committed to helping students be their best and providing support for the people who work to help students succeed. It was energizing to work in a place that had a strong mission and such passionate people. I was doing good work and doing my part to help my colleagues be their best at work. While it's difficult to end this chapter of my life just as it's difficult to think about my aunt's passing (and at the same time, thanks whoever decided on that one), I know that both of these moments are for the best. She is in a better place, without the pain and hopefully, with her voice returned to her after these years. I will figure out what's next for me and move on to something even better.

For the record, if you ever have to receive more bad news on top of an already crappy week, I highly suggest scheduling time after you've visited two wineries. The wine won't numb you completely but it will help when the hitched breath crying starts and you let loose a string of obscenities that would make a sailor blush. You can blame the's always the wine's fault.

And because I promised, here is a fun childhood photo since I've depressed you enough today. I was looking for pictures of me and my aunt in my picture box when I got home but I don't have any here which means they're in that box at my parents' house that I've been meaning to bring home for months. Instead I found this. I can't judge Pumpkin's Ikea bag too much if this is how I used to roll.

Apparently, I enjoyed hanging out in laundry baskets as a a cat.

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