My aunt called over the holidays. She’d invited a few of my cousins over for a “ladies’ night” and wondered if I could make it. I was looking forward to seeing everyone for a happy occasion. It seemed many of the circumstances bringing us together recently had been tinged with sadness.
My cousins and I arrived at my aunt’s home with a flurry of greetings. After shedding boot and coats, and sharing news of grown children and photos of grandchildren and great-grandhchildren, we settled around the kitchen table.
I sat quietly for a moment, looking at the faces of the women gathered there, remembering our shared past. I felt the tug of connection that had been missing for so long, lost in the busyness of raising my own family and the isolating blanket of grief I’d wrapped around myself. I loved those familiar faces; they made up a large part of my life. Yet for all their familiarity they’d changed, not so much from the passage of time, but from the lives they’d lived and all they’d seen. And I realized we’d entered a new season of our family life, together.
When I was born, our family was in the midst of its springtime– seven brothers and sisters (of which my mother was the youngest) their spouses and children (thirty-one kids between them). We saw each other often back then. When we got together, it was always a party and I don’t mean a Norman Rockwell-type party. I mean the dad’s in the basement, drinking beer, watching a ball game and playing Euchre. The mom’s at the kitchen table, after preparing enough food to feed a small Polish city and putting it out on a wood-covered pool table, munching on special mom goodies, and gossiping (in a nice way, of course). Then there were the kids— unsupervised, unchaperoned, unfettered and best friends. We were in heaven. Life was good.
As the thirty-one cousins grew up, the family remained close. Maybe not quite as close as we had been when we were younger, but we still got together often and when we did it was still a party. And those of us that didn’t play Euchre with the dads were still unsupervised, unchaperoned and unfettered. But now most of us were old enough to drink. That made for more “fun”.
We cousins began to get married, standing up in each others weddings, with the new spouses becoming a welcome part of the chaos that was our family. And as the summer of the family wore on, babies came and families grew. And we didn’t see each other as much as we had in the early summer. But when we did, it was still a party.
Until one of the uncles died, sending a chill over the summer of our family. And yet even in that death we were together, many of us blessed to be in his hospital room with him when he drew his last breath in this life.
Summer was the era of “Girls Gone Polish”—the cousins and the aunts and the music. The highlight of our summers was the outdoor concert. We’d arrive an hour early to get good seats on the hill at Meadowbrook Music Theater, coolers packed with the usual goodies and exotic drinks like “Sex on the Beach” or “Fuzzy Navels”. I sometimes think we didn’t go as much for the music as we did for the autographs. Can anyone ever forget surrounding Roy Orbison’s bus until we got the zillion autographs we were after (a shout-out here to Aunt Dolores) or, if the bus managed to elude us, scouting out nearby Marriot hotels in search of autographs? Have the Righteous Brothers ever forgotten the late night phone call to their hotel room asking them to send down their autographs on the hotel napkins?
Autumn came suddenly to the family during an unexpected snow storm. That was the day the youngest cousin died in a tragic car accident on an icy road. That was the day my brother John died.
John had a great love for the family; he was one of those that was always at its heart and core. And even when most of us were too busy to attend this or that graduation or get-together or party, John was there. The death of a beloved cousin, and the youngest on top of that, was painful for everyone. Even so, somehow it made me different from them; I didn’t fit in anymore. I was afraid John would get left behind and I couldn’t bear that. So, I took him to all the family functions with me, and I’d watch the festivities from a distance, with John.
As I sat at my aunt’s table, gazing at the faces it suddenly struck me that each woman sitting there had suffered her own heartbreaking loss since John’s death— the loss of a mother, a sister, a brother, a husband, a father. Yet, I saw a strength and beauty emanating from each of those women that had been lacking in youth. The love we’d always had for each other had deepened and matured. I took a deep breath and settled back into my chair, so grateful for the comfort of being with my family again.
It was a bittersweet moment, because I realized summer had passed and winter would soon be upon us. But I was thankful for our autumn, the most vibrant season of all.
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