My mother died six weeks ago. I remember her saying, after her mother, my Grandma Rigal, died, that no matter how old you are when both your parents pass on, you become an orphan. On the day of Mom’s funeral, a beloved aunt, herself about 85 years old, thold me that it was not until after both her parents had died that she understood that she was not a child anymore. While the passing of the generations is a normal and natural cycle, both of these comments marked the reality of not only a generational but also a personal transition. I am now part of the senior generation, those people who, when I was a child at family reunions, were a bit mysterious and perhaps a little frightening. And, as I am the oldest of my parents’ children, by rights I am the next one up.
In conversation with a seat mate on a recent flight, my interlocutor related that his parents remain alive in their 80s and that their entire family continues to gather en masse a few times a year, but he wondered how that would play out after they were gone. His daughter recently said to him, “you are the rock of our family,” causing him to react, “no, that is my dad,” while realizing, perhaps for the first time, that the generational transition was well underway.
In our family, that is the family of which Grandma Rigal was the matriarch, Thanksgiving was the not-to-be-missed holiday. We gathered at Grandma’s house (my Grandpa Rigal died in 1966, when I was 11) for the family meal and program, in which each of the 16 grandchildren was expected to have prepared some song, recital, or other performance for the family. Then Uncle Dan got out his accordion, played Amazing Grace and the Grand Canyon Suite before starting in on a polka, when we all moved away from the center of the living room so Uncle Pete and my sister Jennifer could dance together. The tradition was palpable, infusing the air along with the aroma of roasted turkey and the taste of Aunt Rosie’s cookies.
At those get-togethers the eight members of my parents generation were the facilitators to make sure the day came off as well as the glue that cemented the bonds between and among us. Each of those aunts and uncles took personal and individual interest in each of us children, helping us to understand just how special we were and how much we were loved. With my mothers passing, four of those eight are now gone.
So now, I am nobody’s child, but that is just fine. It is high time for me to fully embrace that role as grandfather and elder; both of those are actually pretty much fun! I can only hope that I am half as good at imparting love and wisdom as those precious older family members were.