Up until my mid-twenties, I struggled somewhat with the notion of family ties. I didn’t buy the concept that people with whom I shared a gene pool made them any more special or important than my friends, with whom I shared affection, interests, and memories. I loved dearly the members of my family whom I saw frequently, and with whom I had lively relationships (described in this post of adorableness), just as I felt connected to my friends. I regarded my other family members with something close to indifference, and resented the obligation of attending certain family gatherings.
This attitude problem slowly started changing when my Baba died 8 years ago. As I grow older, finding links to a shared past is becoming increasingly important, to guard against the identity loss that happens every time someone important to me dies.
5 years ago, my parents and I were invited to celebrate Russian Christmas at Mrs. L’s, the maternal grandmother of my paternal cousins. My cousins’ parents had divorced almost two decades earlier, their mother had passed away the previous year, and my cousins were not expected to attend that Christmas supper: Mrs. L’s invitation had me puzzled, as we were in no way related! But my mother accepted on our behalf: she had always been fond of Mrs. L, and her daughter (my cousins’ mother) – they’d grown up attending the same church, and my mother had told me many stories of my cousins’ mother, and the early days of her courtship with my uncle. My mother agreed with Mrs. L that a divorce doesn’t annul shared history, or negate family ties.
Without high hopes of finding the supper entertaining, I attended along with my parents. I was very grumpy and ungracious, because it meant missing out on spending time with some of my maternal cousins who were visiting from out of town, and with whom I am very close. I resented Mrs. L’s tenuous claim on my time. My mother sternly reminded me that it was the holidays, a period during which most people struggle with nostalgia and loneliness – even people who hadn’t buried one of their children. The gift of our time was a small gesture to make.
I didn’t understand, then.
However, I did have a great time (Mrs. L cooked a mean turkey feast!), and found it fascinating to learn more about this woman, who had known my Baba, my mother in her youth, and my father. Mrs. L could make any story, however mundane, interesting – she had a gift for storytelling. Her home crammed to the rafters with Russian treasures, and she took evident pleasure in entertaining her guests. As we left, my mother smirked at me – she could tell that I’d enjoyed myself. We’ve been invited every year since then. With each year, the dinner guests change. Several times my paternal cousins have attended, and twice my paternal grandmother attended.
Then my mother died 2.5 years ago. I found myself looking forward to Mrs. L’s Christmas dinner; seeking the comfort of spending time with someone who had known my mother, however sporadically, for most of her life. The importance of recognizing a shared history had sunk in.
This past winter, Mrs. L hosted her last Russian Christmas dinner. Both my paternal cousins attended, along with their father (my uncle), Mrs. L’s ex-son-in-law. I met Mrs. L’s son and his spouse – I was charmed to finally meet another person who had figured in my mother’s stories about her youth. It was a glorious day. A sad one too, for Mrs. L looked very frail, as she was undergoing her second bout with cancer. She was determined not to let her illness get in the way of us spending time together because, as she gently reminded us, “we are all family”.
Mrs. L passed away on Wednesday night. I expected to feel sympathy for my cousins, who have just lost another person who loved their mother and them. I did not expect to feel grief on a personal level.
I should have known better: she was family.