I remember my grandmother's house in a small, lakeside village about 90 miles north of where I grew up. Her modest, two-story bungalow sat on a deep lot that backed up to open fields where doves cooed as I awoke on sunny, summer mornings to the smell of bacon frying. My favorite room was the kitchen, with its massive woodstove and huge, round, oak table, around which my grandmother, parents, and various aunts and uncles would sit after a meal, retelling and embellishing tales from the past.I remember them all as if it were yesterday, even though most of them are long gone. There was my beloved Grandma, of course, the matriarch and mother of ten, seven sons and three daughters. Grandpa died four days before I was born and was buried on the day I was born. Grandma outlived him by 36 years.
A few others were absent from our holiday gatherings by choice -- or not: Aunt Isabelle was always at her home with Uncle Lucien and their own brood of ten. Aunt Helen avoided boisterous family gatherings, though she was close to my mother and visited my home often. Uncle Charles seems to have fled for the sunny South with Aunt Lucille, only to be heard from in Christmas cards. Uncle Louis was the first of Grandma's children to die, and the only one who predeceased her: At the age of 40 he was killed in a road accident while on active duty in the Coast Guard, leaving Aunt Marguerite and several children.
But the present more than made up for the absent. Of the men there was Uncle Joe, the eldest son and another career Coast Guardsman, who among family would unbend from his Chief Petty Officer's demeanor; Uncle Lawrence, the joker and story-teller; Uncle Chet, another raconteur and -- truth be told -- a fair tippler; Uncle George, quieter than Lawrence and Chet, but good with the quip; and the "baby" (born when Grandma was 42) -- Uncle Fred, taciturn to a fault and a bachelor until he passed the age of 40. My father (Pop) rounded out the adult male contingent, and he was closer to his brothers-in-law than he was to his many half-siblings.
The women: my mother (Mom) the eighth child and youngest of the three girls; Uncle Joe's Mary, a flapper in her day; Uncle Lawrence's Christine, the scold; Uncle Chet's Mary, the jolly one; and Uncle George's Peg, a schoolteacher who knew how to let her hair down -- just enough.
The cousins: Too many to name, but my favorites were Lawrences's Sharon and Karoleen and Chet's Geraldine. Cousin Chuck (Charles's son) showed up for Christmas one year and added to the fun; he should have joined us more often.
Only Mom is left. Pop is gone, as are all of Mom's siblings and their spouses. For the departed:
Where are Elmer, Herman, Bert, Tom and Charley,
The weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter?
All, all, are sleeping on the hill.
One passed in a fever,
One was burned in a mine,
One was killed in a brawl,
One died in a jail,
One fell from a bridge toiling for children and wife --
All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.From The Hill, by Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1930)Time, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?....
Last week in Babylon,
Last night in Rome,
Morning and in the crush
Under Paul's dome;
Under Paul's dial
You tighten your rein --
Only a moment, and off once again;
Off to some city
Now blind in the womb,
Off to another
Ere that's in the tomb.From Time, You Old Gipsy Man, by Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962)