Aunt Jo & Uncle Ken (originally published on February 27, 2012) You know you’re close to your family when your doctor asks if there have been any deaths in your family, you say your uncle just died and when she asks, “How?” you’re not entirely sure. I looked puzzled for a second and then said, “Old age? He was 92…” This seemed to satisfy the doctor, but I realized in that split second that I didn’t really know…and was embarrassed.
I don’t really consider myself actively estranged from my father’s side of the family, but there it is. My Uncle Ken, who passed away last weekend, was one of my paternal grandmother’s brothers. And while that man was in my life, or I in his, I adored him. He was smiles and tattoos and tobacco to me when I was growing up. And in the complicated environment that was my father’s family, smiles in my direction were not always plentiful. So his were doubly appreciated.
He was married to my Aunt Jo, a woman whose height I surpassed around the age of 7 but whose enthusiasm I may never match. I was greeted by her the same way every time: she’d clasp her hands in front of her chest and then throw them upwards (perhaps downwards for the first six years of my life) and proclaim, “AMY!” with more love and happiness than any child ever deserved. And then I’d be hugged within an inch of my life by Aunt Jo and Uncle Ken.
As I got older and became privy to family gossip (some true; most exaggerated, I imagine) and fell victim to teenage angst (some reasonable; most exaggerated, I imagine) I began to look at my father’s family members differently. There was a divorce and loyalties and the foolish notion that time was endless and people could be taken for granted. The end result? I didn’t see my family much. But on the few occasions I saw Aunt Jo and Uncle Ken, they welcomed me the same way.
Their daughter, MaryBeth, was my favorite babysitter when I was a wee snot. I thought she was the greatest thing in the world. We reconnected around the time it became legal for me to drink and started going out on occasion. We even wound up on the same bowling team. Things were done and things were said and we haven’t spoken in about 20 years...
Aunt Jo passed away in relative secrecy in 1996 from cancer. She didn’t want anyone to know she was sick. I have to assume it’s because she wanted everyone to remember her as that ball of energetic happiness. And so, I never got to tell her how much she meant to me or say goodbye.
Surely, I would do a better job with Uncle Ken.
Alas, Uncle Ken moved in with MaryBeth about 13 years ago and I think I’ve seen him only once or twice since then. I’m sure it was at funerals.
I almost always saw Aunt Jo and Uncle Ken at my grandparents’ house. It seems there was something going on almost weekly. Someone’s birthday or milestone or rite of passage. Whatever it was, it called for a gathering backed by a cold cut platter and hard rolls. My great Aunt Rhoda and her husband, Kiel, and until she passed, my great grandmother, Gram, lived next door to my grandparents. So it was fairly easy to get everyone together – half the people lived next door to each other.
I think about those times and I want to apologize to my deceased father. I failed miserably at keeping up my side of the bargain. See, as best I can tell, you have to show up. You have to stay involved. I think a good number of the next generation has done that, but I haven’t. I had Christmas cards going for a spell, but so many of them to MaryBeth (and Uncle Ken) went unanswered that I finally stopped sending them.
I probably could have done more to see him. But to not try seemed less painful than being actively ignored or turned away. It’s all so awkward. As my grandmother once said – and I was blissfully too young to understand – “Sometimes it’s best to leave things alone.”
Maybe if I lived closer. I don’t know.
My mother has reconnected with my father’s sister and her “kids” (both adults, one with two kids of his own). They’re all getting together rather frequently now and include me at the holidays. And I typically have some form of anxiety attack when it comes time to see them. I don’t know who they are anymore. I’m not entirely sure how to hold my own weight conversationally. I feel like an outsider looking in. I know I put myself here, but it’s still a strange place to be. Especially when I remember what it was like at all those gatherings when I was young.
Maybe Aunt Jo and Uncle Ken just spoiled me. They should have warned me that very few people would welcome me with open arms and an exuberant, “AMY!” just for existing. As you get older, you’re going to have to offer something up – often times, children will do. Nope, don’t have those. I’m a bud-less branch on my family tree…
I received a last minute invitation for Uncle Ken’s 90th birthday party. Had I known earlier, I could have gone. I would have gone. But I didn’t.
And so, I never got to tell him how much he meant to me or say goodbye.
I’m glad Aunt Jo and Uncle Ken are reunited. As you can see, I think of them as a single unit. But I’m so very sorry I never got to thank them for loving me.
I’ve missed them both for years now. I always will.
Hopefully Uncle Ken will take my Dad fishing. I know he’d love that! <3
Posted by AJ at 4:48 PM
Bert said... AJ - I am sorry for your loss. Your story touched me (perhaps I will write back one day...I guess many of us have similar, complicated families). Be well.
(and I still need to find out what happens with Roth)
February 28, 2012 8:43 AM
AJ said... lol -- I realized when I came here to post the story that I hadn't written Part 2! Such a slacker...
February 28, 2012 9:18 AM
glo said... Aww! How sweet. I'm with Bert. Many of us have this kind of story, especially those of us with deceased parents. They are our link to the older generation. Once they are gone, it's hard to keep the relationship going. It feels like work and just seems easier to establish friendships with people our own age that we see more often. Hence, I'm commenting on your blog and not calling my family. And I came here looking for something about Woody!
March 10, 2012 7:23 AM
Adrienne said... I was looking for the bones that make up the cranial vault in a human and landed here. I figured since I was I may as well read a little and noticed that your story about your Aunt & Uncle could have been written by me if I had the talent or inclination to blog. So, thank you for sharing something that many of us struggle with. Nice to know I'm not alone in the limbo generation.
March 15, 2012 11:18 PM
AJ said... Thank you for commenting! I typically only hear from my friends. :) Inclination, yes. And time. But if you read more of my posts, you'll find it doesn't take talent. ;) There was a time I could have rattled off the bones of the cranial vault for you, but that was when I was pre-med, what seems like many lifetimes ago. :)
March 16, 2012 11:26 AM