Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Memories and connections

While I was in West Virginia visiting my family, my dad had me go through books that belonged to my Aunt Fran. She was quite a reader and left hundreds of books behind when she died. She had probably given away even more, supplying friends at work and probably some family members with reading material for countless years.

It was the same when I was growing up. I don't know how it started, but she must have noticed I liked to read. From then on, whenever I was at her house, she would give me dozens of books. Often she would just let me go through them and take what I liked.

It's funny how I had forgotten some of that.

Fran and I hadn't been close for a long time. It makes me sad to admit it. Gary and I moved to Georgia in 1993. I wasn't always around for family get togethers. She was a busy career woman. I was busy being a wife and working and then being a mom. We lost touch.

I heard about her life the same way she heard about mine --- through other family members. My grandma would tell me about her. My parents would let me know what was going on with her. Once in a while she'd answer the phone when I was calling my grandma. We'd catch up for a few minutes. A couple of times I sent her an email. That was really the extent of our adult relationship.

The distance --- both physical and emotional --- over the years made it easy for me to forget how very much alike we were. I usually heard from someone in my family when I went back home that I was "just like Fran." It bugged me. Fran was tough, sarcastic, sometimes hard to get along with. I wanted to be the saintly sort of wife and mother that everyone speaks about in angelic tones.

But Fran had a more complex personality than I gave her credit for. She wasn't just tough. She was also very kind. She wasn't just sarcastic. She was incredibly funny. She wasn't always hard to get along with. In fact, many, many people at her funeral talked about what a great friend she was. Loyal. Trustworthy. Giving.

Just a couple of weeks before she died, I was in her room. She was in a lot of pain, so I would try to distract her by talking. Sometimes I would just sit in the room with her. I said something to her about myself, something I never really talked about with other people and she said she was exactly the same way.

She died on January 3rd of this year and I have thought about that moment for months. It was a quick moment of connection, but it left me with a strong sense of family with regards to my aunt. I recognized something in her that was also a part of me and it made me know that we were, in many ways, cut from the same cloth.

In the past six months, I've often wished I could have known her more. I've wished I could go back in time and fight harder to have a friendship with her. I've wished I would have made more of an effort and I've wished she would have too.

I lost my grandma just a few weeks after my aunt died and I knew losing my grandma would be hard. Walking into my grandmother's house (where Fran also lived and where we went to go through Fran's books) and my grandma not being there just felt completely wrong. Looking at my grandma's things made me sad. I miss my grandma. I miss that relationship that I know will never be replaced or recovered.

Mourning Fran has been a different experience. I have so much regret associated with her passing. It feels like part of me that should have grown didn't grow. I feel like I missed out on knowing someone. Even though she had always been part of my life, I feel like I missed out on getting to truly know her. And I missed out on getting to know someone with whom I had so much in common.

Going through Fran's books was harder than I thought it would be. I kept many more than I intended to. Some, like her recipe books, I just had to take. I may never open them again, but I couldn't leave them behind. She had such a love and passion for cooking. I knew she held them in high regard.

One book I didn't hesitate to take was a copy of Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have always loved the movie, even years before I moved to Georgia. In fact, I wrote a paper in college about Scarlett O'Hara! As soon as I saw the hardbound copy of the book tucked away in some of my aunt's things, I knew I was going to take it home.

I got it out tonight. It is the first time I've opened the huge tote of books in the 2 weeks I've been home from my trip to West Virginia. I turned to the first page and started reading.

I was surprised by the memory that came to me. This book used to be in my aunt's living room when she lived at Maxwell Hill, years before she moved in with my grandma. I had completely forgotten that. I remembered being at her house, sitting in her living room that she had decorated so nicely. She had worked hard for that home of her own and she was so very proud of it.

The book was on the coffee table. I had walked into the living room during a family get together at my aunt's. I was the only person in there. Everyone else was scattered throughout the house --- some in the dining room, some in the kitchen, others in the TV room. I clearly remember picking up the book, opening to the first chapter and starting to read it. I sat there for quite some time before one of my younger cousins distracted me. I remember putting the book down where my aunt kept it and going off to play.

I don't know why I had forgotten that, but it feels so great to remember it! Maybe the reason I love the movie is because of that early experience reading the book. Maybe my aunt loved the movie too. Maybe that's just another way that we are so alike.

It's true that I'll never get to know her the way I should have when she was living, but I'm so thankful for the moments of connection I can still have that make me realize we were family and much more similar than I could have imagined!

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