This weekend was Labor Day weekend, always in the past the time of my dad’s family reunion — the Richards family reunion that his maternal grandfather started. It’s the first time we haven’t held it on this weekend, but instead will meet in a month, the first weekend in October, and establish the new reunion.
Once, I suspect, this weekend made sense. With a Monday holiday, that allowed everyone to travel to San Augustine, spend Sunday morning at church and then go on to Papa Richards’s for the reunion meal. It was outside. In time, it moved across the road to Uncle Ben’s house, then back across the road to Papa Richards’s house after Uncle Ben died. The heat became more problematic, and as the elders aged, we moved the reunion into town to a community center that we rented. Now, though, many have died and fewer can come at Labor Day. So we’re moving to a friend’s place that will accommodate us all, regardless of numbers, and to the first weekend in October, when it’s cooler.
This weekend I found myself thinking about the reunion, and about Dad, and Mother, and Phil. About those who can no longer attend the reunion.
And when Seamus Heaney died this week, I also found myself thinking about his poetry. One poem in particular, “Clearances,” stayed with me, about the death of his mother.
Part of the poem, though, haunts me. I felt it when my mother died — to my own great surprise. And I feel it now, since Dad has died. Let me share those lines with you:
” Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.”
When Mother died, I felt that hole open up, a hole that she had filled. I knew that no one could or would ever fill it.
When Dad died, yet another hole opened, again one that could not be filled.
Between them, they’d taught me so much. Mother taught me about patience, about independence, about so many things. Possibly, even, more than either of us even realized at the time. Now I have a much greater appreciation for her own struggles with depression, with anxiety, with a sense of value. Perhaps I had to grow up more quickly as a result, and felt that I missed out on something that other “normal” families shared. Yet as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate so much more how she had to feel, and wish that I could apologize to her and thank her at the same time.
Mother was a traditional stay-at-home mother. She worked outside the home until children came, and then gave that up. To my knowledge, that’s what she wanted. I had the security of knowing she’d be there when I got home, that a snack would be ready.
Even when I knew that I wanted to work outside the home when/if I ever married, I realized how fortunate I was.
Dad worked and brought in the paycheck. Yet he spent far more time at home, and taking part in the household activities, than many men of his generation. Dad cooked at times, cleaned at times. We all had chores. We all worked. Dad spent afternoons and nights with us. He didn’t go out with other guys. When he was on a bowling team, we all went. When we had school events, Dad was there, along with Mother.
When Mother was ill– when she was having severe problems with her anxiety, problems we called “breakdowns” in the 50s and 60s, he stayed with her when many men wouldn’t have done so. “For better or worse” was lived in our house — those weren’t empty words, not at all. And we knew it.
Mother and Dad fought against the odds of different religions to marry and to create a harmonious home that was respectful of both religions, both traditions, both families.
Both sides of my immediate family knew each other. They still do. They ask about each other.
The empty holes that my parents left with their deaths are still there, but I also am left with, as Heaney noted, “the space [that] had been emptied / Into us to keep.”
Those holes aren’t really empty. They are clearances, where something passed from Mother and then Dad and now reside in me.
The holes are in fact filled beyond belief, filled with the myriad memories and lessons.
Maybe this reunion weekend was a time for such recognition, such comfort. I’m not feeling desolation right now, though I still sense the loss their deaths have left. I’m feeling the spaces they still fill, despite their deaths.
But I think today of the spaces they emptied — and what they emptied into us. I have so much that is a direct result of something Mother or Dad or Phil said or did. Or simply what they were. Our lives are still tied, though perhaps in different ways now.
This Labor Day weekend I spent time with Kay, with our cousin Barbara (Dad’s niece) and her husband Herb, with our cousin Carolyn (Mother’s niece) and her husband Larry, and our friend Charles, whose dad also worked for Sun Oil and who grew up in the camp with us.
Next month, my cousin Mike (Dad’s nephew) and his wife Sissy will meet me at the beach house. Maybe we’ll get together with our cousin Jim (Dad’s nephew), who lives on the island.
And on the first weekend of October, we’ll have the new, revised reunion. Many of my immediate family will be there. My dad’s sister certainly will be. A number of their first cousins from the Richards side will be there also. And some of the younger generation will be as well. We’ll all bring food, eat far more than we need, and share stories and laughter.
The place we meet and the time we meet don’t really matter. That we meet does matter.
We spend time together not out of obligation, but out of love.
That’s what family does.