Thursday, July 23, 2009

Guess who's coming to the cemetery...

It dawned on my recently that I have no idea where my late father's last living sibling was buried. My aunt died last December at the age of 89 in California and there was no obit, no funeral, nothing.

My father was the youngest of seven - three boys and four girls, Aunt Lynn being the youngest of the girls. And as it came to be, Aunt Lynn's second marriage was to her widowed brother in law, our Uncle Lou. Lou had been married to Lynn's elder sister, our Aunt Betty. Alone in the world after Betty passed, he called Lynn and said "You've been alone for twenty plus years, I've been alone for a few - what do you say we not be alone together?" And so they had a few years of happiness before Uncle Lou died. I didn't go to the funeral because I couldn't get the time off from work, and because I had just spent a couple days with them just a few months before.

Aunt Lynn made the decision that she would be buried not with her first husband Chet, who was a very fine man, but with Lou. She also decided that she and Lou would be buried together, not in Cleveland with the family, but in LA. So the topic never really came back up in casual conversation. And with her passing, I had no idea where either of them was laid to rest.

So I called my cousin, Lynn's son, to see if he could shed some light on this. His wife, whom I have never met, answered and I identified myself. She asked me to repeat my name. I did.

Now, I know we aren't a terribly close family, but this woman tells me that her husband doesn't have a cousin named Stuart. Now, I wanted to tell her that she was mistaken, but I took the high road and again explained who I was. And again, she told me that she has been "in this family for over twenty years and has never heard of anyone" with my name.

So again, I stated who I was and again I was denied my place in the family. I told her stories that only people in the family would know. She wanted to know how I learned about them because only family would know them. It seemed obvious to me, I lived through a great many of the stories before they were stories. But somehow she made me feel as if I had somehow pried them from the minds of people that she considered were more her family than they were mine.

Here's the kicker: she asks why I need to know where her mother in law and step father in law are buried. I thought about this for a second. I could have gone off like a bottle rocket, or I could have hung up, but it was just easier to state the obvious fact. Cemeteries aren't for the dead that reside there, they are for the living who get left behind. They're places of safety, or comfort and remembrance. I wanted to know because I loved them, and having lost them once, I didn't want to lose them again.

So I told her that maybe she should call her husband and one of them could get back with me. As I've said I'm the youngest of the cousins and there is almost a generational shift, so I knew what was going on.

While I was waiting I thought about the last time I had "lost" this aunt. Sometime after my 14th birthday the family came together for my cousin Brian's bar mitzvah. I would staying at my father's house - my mother and I left Cleveland the summer before - and the event was so big that "The Family" would be all driving and flying in from all places near and far. My two aunts from Florida came in and stayed with my father as well. When I greeted my Aunt Nan and my Aunt Evelyn, I was asked to carry Aunt "Lynn's" bags up stairs. You mean Aunt Evie, right, I asked. "Stu, I don't know who you are talking about," my aunt Nan said, "now hurry on because your Aunt Lynn and I want to see you."

It was at that point that it dawned on me that the woman who had been my Aunt Evie had disapearred one night and awoke the next morning as Aunt Lynn. And so it was. Years later when I weas going through my Aunt Nan's family albums, the stains from the ink remover were evident as all traces of "Evie" were removed and "Lynn" was scribbled in. This was also about the time that Aunt Nan disapeared and was replaced by Aunt Nanette. Same women, different identities.

When I was in my thirties I asked Aunt "Lynn" what brought about the name change and she was rather direct about it. "Evie", it seems, was an old person's name, and my 80 year old aunt preferred "Lynn" because it was youthful, and popular in Florida where she lived for many years. "Lynn is beautiful, but snappy, you know?" I don't know about the snappy part, but it was her life and her decision. Manners dicates that we make those around us happy by calling them by their names.

Well, an hour goes by and the phone rings and its my cousin's wife. Apologizing profusely and admitting her embarrassment. I had been cleared by a cousin in Cleveland, I was back in the inner circle.

And it dawned on my that this wasn't anything that she had done, it was in fact because her husband and I allowed this happen by not making an effort to at least stay in touch outside of the weddings and funerals that we attended or didn't. No, she was probably in the right by verifying my story - its a crazy world out there. If someone called you up and said that they were the brother or sister of some long lost cousin, would you be interested in sharing any of your information? Probably not.

Still, it gives me cause for a moments reflection.

There is a cold comfort in knowing that one really is the black sheep of the family, and I solemnly have notched my belt with another encounter to prove it.

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