This is my first holiday season without my dad, who died in July at age 93. Thanksgiving was actually easier than I expected, thanks mostly to my toddler great niece who kept us all entertained with play-doh elephants and requests for “More sauce!” (gravy). But I imagine I will really miss his presence on December 21, his birthday. Especially in the last few years, we made sure to gather all the family – me, my sister, and our families – twelve of us total, counting my dad, to celebrate.
I’m also continuing to adjust to the fact that both of my parents have died. I am the first among friends my age to reach that milestone (my parents were relatively old – ages 47 and 42 – when I was born). This change became evident to me in a very concrete way recently, when all eleven of us went out to dinner. At the end of the meal, the server brought the check and I looked around to see who was going to get out their credit card. Then I realized that that responsibility now belonged to me and my sister, as the eldest in the family (no more Kids’ Table for me, I guess!).
On a more serious note, as a wise friend said when I shared with her how unusually lonely I was feeling, “the foundation your parents provided – no matter what your relationships with each of them – is gone.”
So, what do I want to build in its place?
Like my dad, my happy place is being surrounded with the people I love most in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s twelve of us enjoying a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner or four of us reluctantly picking at leftovers on any given Thursday. We might be decorating the Christmas tree or just doing the laundry – it’s simply about being together (a little corny, I know; I’m sure my teenage children are rolling their eyes).
Growing up, I spent very little time around extended family. My parents were the only ones in their families of origin to move east of the Mississippi River. I saw my grandparents only every few years, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins even less often.
All of this reflection has led me to realize that I want to build an even stronger foundation for my own family. My children are fortunate to have grown up with their grandparents nearby and to have close relationships with aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom live in the DMV. But as we all get older – my generation in middle age, my children in young adulthood, my nieces and nephews raising the next generation – I realize that as with any relationship, these familial ones need to be tended with love and care, time and attention.
So yes, I’m going to be That Aunt who gathers everyone for regular dinners, just because. Who reminds everyone of birthdays and anniversaries. Who is frequently sharing pictures among loved ones. More than anything, I see now that my dad taught me that the most important thing in life is not making lots of money or having a sexy job or having the greenest lawn in the neighborhood (though that is close to the top – he was a Nebraska farmer, after all) – it’s simply spending time with the people we love.
This year, I will approach the holiday season in a spirit of honoring and furthering my dad’s legacy. In my happy place. Thanks Dad.
Rae Tyler Millman
Lovely and meaningful message, Maureen. Thank you. Gentle love, Rae
Thanks for your column, Maureen, and for reminding us all how important it is to be present with those we love.