We gathered over a photo: a simple mobile snapshot of a house. A stately stone and shingle suburban colonial once owned by my grandparents.
In the picture, it’s a beautiful, blue-sky day. Sun glistens off the shutters. Shadowy elm tree branches appear to intertwine like figures on the windows. A row of thick green hedges seem fuller than I remember. Two flower pots sit on the walkway and welcome you with bright red begonias.
Last month, my cousin had driven past our grandparents former home in Hatfield, PA, the place where my dad grew up, a place that held so many memories for all of us. He snapped a photo and posted it on Facebook.
Within minutes, another cousin posted: “Lots of memories there.” And so sparked a litany of comments: moments, quirks and random stuff that existed in — and only in — that house in Hatfield and in our collective brains. One thought would trigger another.
“Do you remember the Plexiglass game pieces we’d play with?”
“We still have those Plexiglass game pieces!”
“The rockers on the porch, the Tootsie Roll Pops in the kitchen jar.”
“Grandmom playing the organ. Reading fairytales on my Aunt’s old four-poster bed.”
“Putting Bugle chips on our fingers.”
From soothing to laugh-til-you-cry comments, the memories came at a much needed time.
My cousin’s family had experienced a lot of heartache earlier this year. His big brother, my cousin, had passed away unexpectedly in February, leaving all of us shocked and saddened, especially his brothers and sisters. He had been in the prime of his life, working as a chef in the retirement community where his parents lived. In his mid 50s, he’d recently married a wonderful woman; he had finally found his soul mate.
But with most sad things comes that small, small silver lining. His funeral was a time where our extended family could gather in grief, and some of us hadn’t seen each other in years. We wept, laughed and smiled as we reminisced. Distance, age, time faded away. We remembered those beer tasting contests, my cousin’s skills as a BBQ pitmaster, his kindness and sparkling eyes.
Despite the fact that most of us lived miles and states away, lived different kinds of lives and rarely saw each other, we had a shared experience of people, places and things that made us a unique tribe, bonded for life.
Over the course of several days the comments beneath the photo got deeper, more colorful. My cousins remembering things I’d long since forgotten and vice versa.
“Grandmom’s cast-iron-skillet-prepared new potatoes. They were always so nicely browned with a crunchy skin…”
“Grandmom forgetting about the homemade egg nog until it was just about time to leave and the grown ups standing in the foyer, in their coats, drinking it.”
“Grandpop’s handshake where he would close his thumb so we would clasp his arm instead of his hand.”
“Family Christmas gift exchanges in the living room. The gift of Stretch Armstrong will be one of the MOST memorable for all those present: “He’s got a DIMPLE in his BUTT” (and the speaker KNOWS who she is!!!)”
I know, how could anyone forget about Stretch Armstrong? Somehow I had, but only momentarily.
Various cousins chimed in and drove the posts to 60+ comments. I’d check in from time to time to see what new memory someone had unearthed.
“Grandpop’s fedoras in the closet.”
“Did you know that Grandmom kept one of Grandpop’s hats in her car to put on if she had to drive at night so people wouldn’t know it was a lady driving by herself?”
Then just last weekend, life interrupted again. My 87-year-old Aunt passed away. She’d been quite ill for the last few years, and was suffering from a bit of dementia, but her death was no less devastating for a family who’d already lost a brother/son this year.
Again, I travelled back to Pennsylvania, to the very same room where we’d all said goodbye a few months prior. And again, in a room of folding chairs and percolator coffee, we hugged, wept and occasionally laughed.
Another cousin told me that only a week ago she’d read my Aunt all of the memories and comments from that Facebook post and that my Aunt smiled.
Whether she truly understood it or not we won’t know.
After the funeral I spent the night at my parents house in Philadelphia and we perused the comments again. My parents hadn’t seen them and reading them aloud, after such a sad day, was cathartic.
Dad had a few additions — or rather — revisions.
The Plexiglass pieces were the result of his geometry project in junior high.
And Stretch? He eventually ended up in red goo across my brother’s closet floor after my sister and I “operated” on him. “I had to chip away at the sticky goo with a putty knife to get it off,” said Dad.
(That, I seem to forget.)
While we may think we have nothing in common with those we call our family, we always do, even if it’s just a few faint recollections.
Our memories are our true connectors.
Allow me to get all English Major-y and end with a little Wordsworth, who said it best:
“And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years.”