Sunday, July 14, 2013
Guides: Marion Burden
[I wrote this earlier this week, for my family. I’ve decided to post it here as a part of my series about people who have had a great impact on my life. You may wish to read the introduction to the series.]
For me, as a child, “family dinner” meant the mid-day meal on Sundays, with my grandparents on my father’s side. Oh, we had dinners with my maternal grandparents as well, sometimes, but it was more infrequent, and more ... reserved. Not as much fun. And, once or twice a year, we’d go to family reunions, which were huge, sprawling affairs, with more relatives than I could keep track of. My paternal grandmother had a very large family, and most of her brothers and sisters had decent-sized families themselves, and it made for quite a lot of “cousins” to keep up with. Except they weren’t technically my cousins ... they were my dad’s cousins, or in some cases my second cousins.
My dad’s family was smaller, more intimate. Dad has just one brother, and no sisters. At first I was the only kid. Then I had one cousin, then two cousins, and then two cousins and a little brother. And that was as big as our family dinners ever got: grandmother and grandfather, mother and father, aunt and uncle, two cousins and a sibling. We had a lot of family dinners—big dinners at Easter or Thanksgiving or Christmas, little dinners on your average ordinary Sunday—and I ate a lot of food at my grandmother’s table. There were certain things that were very predictable at these dinners. My grandmother would burn the biscuits. Us kids would start eating before everyone was at the table, and we’d get yelled at. There would be a minimum of one dish containing potatoes: boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, or potato salad, and possibly two of the three, and, for a big dinner, probably all three. There would always be homemade biscuits for everyone else, and canned biscuits because my uncle Jimmy and I liked those better. And, if it was a holiday, there would be some sort of lime green Jello concoction, with whipped cream and unidentifiable chunks floating in it, and my aunt Marion would say “You know what that looks like, don’t you?” And us kids would giggle, and my grandmother would sniff disapprovingly, but then she’d say that she only ever made the stuff just so Marion would get to deliver that line.
My grandmother and grandfather are both gone now, but all the rest of us are still here ... or at least we were, until a few days ago. That’s when I got the word that my aunt Marion had passed away. She’d been sick for a while now, so it wasn’t really a surprise. Not that that helps. When your family members die after a long illness, people will tell you that at least they’re not suffering any more, and when they die suddenly, people will say at least they didn’t suffer, but none of that really makes a dent in how you feel. There’s a sense that you have of a person, regardless of how often you see them: it might be a large looming presence, or it might be just a comfortable feeling tucked away in the back of your mind, like the keepsakes you have up in your attic—you don’t take them out and look at them very often, but you’re comforted just knowing they’re there. Then, one day, that sense is gone ... the loss might be overwhelming, or it might be like an itch you can’t quite reach, or it might be anywhere in between, but it’s always very sharp. It cuts. And it’s hard to adjust to.
I haven’t seen my aunt Marion for many years. But I remember many things about her. Some are superficial: her boundless capacity for the color red, and her endless delight in Snoopy, for instance, are things that everyone who knew her even slightly remembers. Some are not even very well connected with her as a person: for instance, my earliest remembrances of my aunt and uncle are probably going out to their house, which was way outside town, and playing with their electric organ. I don’t specifically see Aunt Marion in these memories, but the organ made quite an impression on me, as I was very young and it was very cool.
I remember giant stuffed Snoopies, and I remember elaborate piled hair-do’s, and I remember her candy-making business, with the rainbow assortments of white chocolate and the candy molds and she even made her own peanut butter cups, and that was pretty cool no matter how old you were. And I remember lots and lots of family dinners. I remember her bringing over my cousin Chris for the first time, and I remember her bringing over my cousin Cathy for the first time. I remember that she laughed the loudest, and the easiest, and the most often. I remember her giving us silly Christmas gifts, like bad cologne, just because she knew that my brother and I loved to say “Brut: by Faberge” in our best Eddie Murphy voice, and I guess she liked hearing us say it.
What I remember most about her, though, was her strength. My Aunt Marion said what was on her mind, and she said it straight, and she didn’t care who heard her. She was the only person in our family who did that. My mother’s family was polite to the point of obsession; my father’s, more plain-spoken, but still proper. But Aunt Marion went beyond plain-spoken and into what was to me a strange new world of honesty and forthrightness. She came into a room like a whirlwind, dominated a conversation without monopolizing it, was brazen without crossing the line into shocking. Well, I’m sure she crossed some people’s lines. There were probably people who considered her rude. There were probably those who were secretly jealous of her apathy towards what others thought of her. I just thought she was cool, and, the older I got, the cooler she was.
So today I’m missing my aunt, even though I hadn’t spoken to her in forever. Even though those family dinners are long gone, they remain fresh in my mind. Even though I haven’t seen my cousins in years, my thoughts are with them, because they’ve lost their mother, and even though I haven’t talked to my uncle for just as long, my thoughts are with him, because he’s lost his soulmate. My loss compared to theirs is very small, but I still feel it. I’m going to miss my loud, crazy Aunt Marion because, in many ways, she was the best of us. And that’s always worth celebrating.