My grandmother claims her first memory at six weeks of age. I may have been skeptical in the past, but I believe she remembers lying in a cradle, watching the lantern swing from the tent pole on the way to her father’s funeral. Just two days before he planned to go home, kiss his wife and meet his new baby daughter, John Wallace Strohecker was killed in a mining accident– the emotions must have been so intense even a tiny infant would grasp a lasting impression. And I wonder if her father was there, whispering in her ear, “Remember this. Remember me.”
Not until Sunday night did I mention catching a flight to my grandma’s funeral the next day. “What!?!” Mary wailed, “You can’t leave me! My mommy can’t leave.” Arms wrapped around my neck, real tears streaming down her face, she clung to me and cried, “Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go….”
She was still wailing as we gathered in the hall for family prayer, “Whose turn is it?”
“Mary’s.” I answered, “let’s skip to Daddy.”
“You can’t skip me! I’m praying.”
We knelt, bowed heads– “Dear Heavenly Father, please bless that mommy WON’T go. And bless Ben in Italy. AMEN!”
And so, I left a bit reluctantly the next morning. We are not a family who gathers often and I dreaded the questions and comments– especially with the devastation my family has suffered in the last two years.
But as we entered the coffee shop where her wake was held (a cozy lovely place with velvet benches, vintage table and plush couches) we were greeted with open arms, firm hugs and expressions of delight. My cousins marveled that I have oh-so-many kids and we compared names and ages, college plans and favorite books. Despite decades of little communication we communed like dear friends, well, like family.
John Wallace was an extraordinarily well-educated man for his day and he chose gentle, quiet Zoe for her love of books, music and children. “I would rather live in a home with children, music and a wife who loves me than all the wealth in the United States.” he wrote while they were courting.
For generations, our family has been marked by a love of books and learning– a trait that often made them feel lonely and different from their companions. Ruth Ann was never without a book, never missed a day reading the newspaper.
Raised by her widowed mother and grandparents on a farm with no indoor plumbing or electricity, Ruth Ann emptied the slop jars every morning, milked the cows, bleached the linens, swept and dusted– in the afternoon she was free to play with the dogs. She scarcely saw any other children until moving into town at age 11.
After the wake, we talked and marveled at our shared family traits. Each girl took home a piece of grandma’s jewelry and we all promised to write and visit more often. My uncle, my mother’s only sibling, hugged me with real affection and told story after story of my mother.
To speak of my mother, with someone who knows and loves her, is like water in a desert. Our mourning has been crippled, halted by much graver events and we all cried at her absence.
Her father’s death colored much of Ruth Ann’s life. In her personal history she wrote over and over– ‘if only my father were alive.’ Still, she married well (a bookish brilliant man, of course), raised two incredible children and nurtured beautiful gardens.
Later, I went to dinner with all but one of my siblings. When did we last sit around a table together? We laughed and teased, retold childhood stories and surely drove the waitstaff crazy as we lingered well into the night.
And something miraculous happened, despite the destruction our family has endured, we realized we can form a new sort of family. Brainstorming, we hatched a plan to visit my brother Dan in New York next April– for the first time in more than twenty-five years, all five of us will gather together.
I’m leaving a lot of space between the lines in this post– you can interpret them however you’d like– but my message is this: no matter how broken your family the future holds surprises, new possibilities.
After ninety-four years on earth Ruth Ann finally met her father. I’m sure her mother greeted her eagerly as did my Grandpa Harold and her daughter, my mother. In heaven, I believe our earthly limits on communication will dissolve– love and understanding flow freely. I believe in the immortality of the human soul, I believe in the resurrection and I know the day will come when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” Rev 21:4.