Thursday, January 9, 2020
When There are Less of the Ones to Ask
When I mentioned, a couple weeks ago, about losing my older sister, some asked if I would be sharing stories about her. In a way, I'd love to, but I can't. Not because the grieving has incapacitated me or anything...it's just that this wasn't the type of sisterly relationship you might have had in mind. It's not like I can share wild stories of teenaged indiscretions or escapades where we snuck off together in a fit of mischievous abandon.
With a sister who was old enough to have been my mother, I have a far different set of stories. After all, this is the woman who, when my parents needed a few days away, volunteered for child care. Her daughter and I went to high school together—and amazed all our friends with the realization that it was possible for a niece to have an aunt who was in the same grade. This is the kind of sister with whom to share a very different set of secrets. It wasn't until I was properly schooled in "adulting" that I became closer to a sister like this.
Not to say we weren't close; she was a very loving person. All her children deeply mourn her passing. Time has not yet made this loss any easier.
As the years passed, our talks were filled with memories of family members no longer with us. My sister had the advantage of personally knowing relatives whom I only knew by names and stories. This included my paternal grandparents, both of whom had died before I was even born.
My sister—along with some of my cousins—was my partner in crime in cracking the mystery of my paternal grandfather, the one who kept his Polish roots so deeply hidden from everyone, even those in his own family. I would ask her crazy questions, the kind of stuff only those with face-to-face experience could answer, like, "Did he have an accent?" After all, how did a Polish immigrant pull off a stunt like reinventing himself as an Irishman? But somehow, he did. I wanted to know how.
My sister was the one who told me what my Grandma Sophie was like, how she kept the apartment so immaculately clean. My sister would describe the smell of the cleaning soap she used, or the route to get to her grandparents' home. And, of course, she'd share some of the fun little secrets kept with relatives now long gone.
Together, we'd puzzle over how the story of our grandparents' lives did not seem to add up to what we'd expect from the reality of where they came from and how they got here. Every now and then, my sis would pop up on Facebook or in an email and say something like, "Do you remember ever hearing this story?" Or, "This may sound crazy, but..." Even the wildest recollections were preserved, just in case anything came of such stories.
Almost all I ever learned about the grandparents I never met, I learned from talking to my older sister. In a way, I met them through her, a vicarious—and one-sided—relationship with the grandparents I never knew.
Losing my sister reminds me that there are, every day, fewer of this generation left for us to reach out to, or visit, or chat with, or share with in reminiscing. And yet, it's not as if we can feverishly make the rounds of everyone left in that oldest generation and compel them to immediately recall the details we seek.
I can't help but think of a family friend whose young daughter has recently taken up an interest in genetic genealogy. For Christmas this year, she got to become the family scientist and administer DNA tests to her grandmother and oldest grand-aunt. Just that experience itself—the asking for permission to test, even—precipitated the aunt's curiosity about a branch of her family long gone and barely remembered. Whatever became of those relatives? Now, the aunt wants to know—and may be one of a very few who even remember any of the details to help guide them to the right answers.
As we have the chance, these opportunities to chat with the younger generations help keep the family stories alive. Our oldest generation has a priceless treasure—one which they can either share with those who want to know, or take with them when no one thinks to ask. Anything that sparks that chance to talk precipitates the recouping of a family treasure on the verge of vanishing from the family's collective memory. While wills or marriage licenses may run the risk of courthouse fires, the tragedy of the risk of loss our family stories face is that it is entirely preventable with the simplest of solutions: just ask. While we still can.