Last weekend I had the joy of meeting my brand new great niece, a beautiful baby who slept sweetly in my arms (giving me one little glimpse of her pretty eyes) for the entire hour of our visit. Holding her was emotional in a way that was very different from the sensation I had when I held my grandchildren for the first time. With my grandchildren I had that overwhelming feeling of “my baby and their baby” and the joy of our expanding family. With my great niece, I certainly felt the joy of new life, a new family and my happiness for my niece and her husband. I also felt a hole, a void, the sadness that she will never know her grandfather, whose love for her would have known no bounds.
My brother missed most of his children’s lives, leaving us when they were just 11 and 12. My niece has lived more of her life without him than with him, a fact that makes me ache with loss. It’s a funny thing, when we were young my father used to talk about his mother and how much she would have loved us and all the things we missed in our lives because she was gone. I was a year old when she died and my mother was pregnant with Norm so these stories were part of the fabric of our childhood. I remember thinking, even as a small child, that I wanted to get married and have children young enough for them to know their grandparents. I did but as always “Man plans and God laughs” and my parents did not have the chance to know their grandchildren, both gone when the kids and I were very young.
As I held the baby I looked into her face and wished, beyond wished, that I could have shared this moment with Norm, that I could have watched his pride and seen the tears roll down his face. I wished that Rebecca could have had him there to fuss over her and the baby, to cuddle the tiny newborn in his big hands with the gentleness that was so much a part of who he was.
Wishing doesn’t make it so, my mother used to say, and it is true. So beyond wishes, how do I make certain this little girl knows about her grandfather, the one that she will never meet, the one that only lives in the stories we tell. It is not about the grief or the “if only” or the “how much you are missing” messages akin to those my father shared. She needs to know the person that he was, the essence of this man whose life now echoes in her life.
That, I think, is the role I have to play in all of this as I am the keeper of the history. I have often said to people that when you lose a sibling you lose your past, present and future as they are the person you expect to be with you the longest. I have all those years, the funny stories, the anecdotes, the real knowledge of character, all knowledge that no one else has or can have.
For my little great niece I will find a way to build that bridge from the past to the future, to make him real for her, to connect. But how to take that thought and grow it further? How do we preserve the memories of our loved ones, how do we make certain that it all is not just lost and forgotten? There was an era when oral histories were passed from generation to generation. That is not the world we live in today. Yet I believe that we cannot allow ourselves to lose those threads, that history, those memories. It is our continuity. It matters.