20 October 2010

Sticky Note List

My father has nine siblings. I say “has,” even though a few have passed away, including my father, because one’s siblings are always one’s siblings. Remembering their birth order was always impossible for me. When I grew up, I just had to keep track of one sibling. Not too long after my father (Herb -- #3) passed away, I asked my Aunt Doris (#9 – the oldest of twins) for their birth order and I wrote it down on a sticky note and have been using it as a bookmark, so I can see it all the time. They are: Bob, Mary, Herb, Curt, Dick, Pat (Patricia), Nancy, Bill, Donna and Doris. There is unbelievable family resemblance among them, although even the twins aren’t identical. I took my sons to a family reunion when they were in grade school, and the youngest came up to me after about an hour and whispered incredulously, “They all look alike!” It certainly wasn’t a trait he and his brother shared, nor my sister and I.

Uncle Bob (#1) passed away when I was young; his was the second funeral I attended, the first being his daughter’s, just two years before. I had an attachment for those two that I’m not sure I can explain. All the Saunders men have lovely hair; and it turns silvery grey at an early age. I remember my father being so angry at Uncle Bob when he cut all his off in favor of a crew cut. I remember my cousin Kathy played the zither. My memories of them are fragmented and brief, but their departure from life left a void my young heart could not explain. Even this old heart is uncertain of the sense of loss I experienced.

Years later, there came the news that my Aunt Donna (#9 – the other twin) had died in an automobile accident. She and her husband, Uncle Kenny, with Aunt Mary (#2) and Uncle Avie, were visiting my dad and stepmother in Arizona. They were hit head-on by a drunk driver, headed in the wrong direction on the freeway. It was not his first offense. It killed Uncle Kenny outright. My cousins had to give their permission to remove their mother – my Aunt Donna – from life support. When they died, I was an adult, with children of my own. I thought it would be easier to endure their loss. But I remembered those summers spent with my Aunt Donna, who made me blueberry pie, who would get up and dance with the kids at parties when all the other grown-ups were chatting and laughing amongst themselves. I remember her and Uncle Kenny being a loving, laughing couple, which was a stark contrast to my own parents. I remember her rosy cheeks and freckles and how much she loved the little pigs they raised on their farm.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Avie were severely injured in that same car accident. Aunt Mary walked with a walker for some time afterward. Visits to their house were experiences with independence and freedom never enjoyed at home. With their nine children and cousins come to visit, adults were hard pressed to keep track of any of us – a far cry from the close eye and watchful monitoring practiced by my mother at home. My cousins provided me with the big and little brothers and sisters I missed in my daily play with my only sister, just 12 months younger. We called Aunt Mary “Sis,” because that’s what my dad called her. I puzzled about what exactly an “Aunt Sis” might be until my dad finally explained that she was his sister, hence, “Sis” and that I should call her “Aunt Mary.” But it was too late. She’d always be Aunt Sis to me. Aunt Sis passed away just a few years before my dad, who died in 2006, just four months after I’d moved back to the States from Australia. I’d spent about two weeks with him since I’d been back, one of those just a couple weeks before he died.

I’m looking at that list on that dog-eared sticky note now. Uncle Curt (#4) is not well as I write. I remember my father’s occasional exasperation with my Uncle Curt because he didn’t seem to want a career spanning decades, but he worked at this job and that job. Among his many professions, he’d been a milkman. My dad, on the other hand, worked for one building products company from early in his married life until he started his own business in the mid-60s. He retired from that company, having never worked at another. I was more like my Uncle Curt. When my father decried my ‘job-hopping’, as he called it, after I got out of the Navy, I told him that I must have inherited the Uncle Curt gene. I never told Uncle Curt that. Maybe Uncle Curt isn’t proud of his own ‘job hopping’. But he has always seemed a happy man; so perhaps he’d be flattered.

I pray – or whatever it is that one does when one wishes for the things one wants most, the things that money can’t buy, and imagination can’t create, and no amount of trying will affect – that Uncle Curt recovers from these medical problems he’s having. I look at my sticky note list, and he is now the oldest surviving sibling. My Aunt Doris is the youngest surviving sibling. In between, there’s my Uncle Dick (#5), the barber/postal worker. His wife, Aunt Beverly, and my mother always seemed to share a bond that I was sorry to see broken when my parents divorced. My dad always went to visit them whenever he was in Illinois. I felt that I’d let my dad and Uncle Dick down when I missed the family reunion this past summer. My Aunt Pat (#6) helped raise the twins after their mother died. You can tell how close she and my Aunt Doris are if you’re in the same room with them. Aunt Nancy (#7) is a cancer survivor – the same cancer that my dad had – we spent time with her and Uncle Paul when my parents took a holiday, even when he was just starting out as a surgeon in Iowa City, and they lived in a tiny little house with (what seemed like) giant grape vines in the back yard. Later, when they moved, she used to make me mulberry pies.

My Uncle Bill (#8) is the family’s baby boy. He used to work for the phone company, and he’s supposed to be retired now, but I think he works even harder now. I’m not sure they need the money; I think he’d be lost without work. After he and Aunt Fern began spending winters in Florida, they somehow influenced my dad to spend his winters down there, too. This was such a great idea, particularly after my stepmother died and my dad was so lonely. My Uncle Bill phoned me not long after my dad had died, and when he first said, “Hello,” it took my breath away because he sounds a lot like my dad. I’m afraid I still avoid talking to him on the phone for that reason. I should explain that to him, so he doesn’t think I’m ignoring him.

Aunt Doris is on Facebook; and she emails. I’ve even spoken to her via Skype. She keeps us up-to-date on Uncle Curt’s health and any important family news. She and Uncle Tom were some of my dad’s frequent visitors. She often remarks on old photos that I post that my dad is her ‘handsome big brother’. One often forgets that one’s parents had lives of their own, beginning long before one was born, with heartstrings that tie them to people far away, people one never knows as well as one’s parents – people who look like one’s dad, and speak like him, and loved him, and were perhaps more considerate or attentive at times than a busy child, trying to make her way and raise her children in a busy world.

I look at that sticky note list and see how time is whittling away at the top of the list, even taking an untimely bite out of the bottom of the list, when it took Aunt Donna from us long before her expected time. To lose a parent is a small taste of what it must feel like to be an orphan; to lose aunts and uncles, who have been bestowed on a niece in such abundance, is losing one’s family, one’s connected to parents and cousins and grandparents she never knew. The sticky note list is not just a reminder of the birth order of my dad and his siblings; it is a reminder of my heritage, my family, one I rarely see, but feel in my heart every day.