I. Oh sister, don’t be afraid of me*
In early June, two of my father’s children reached out to me, first on Facebook (remember when Facebook was for college students only; glory days), and later through texts and eventually phone calls. These new sibling wanted to develop a relationship (whatever that means).
After various correspondence the nagging feeling inside of me would grow-WHY NOW? Each time we exchanged a text or a call I questioned further I know they say they want a relationship, but what do they really want from me?
A few weeks post first contact I received a notification on Facebook. Estranged sister number one had tagged me in a post. After initial hand wringing about what this post could be, curiosity got the best of me. The post was an image and an introduction to our grandmother, the woman whose name I bear. My father never named any of his children after his mother, except me. And to be named after this woman left me contemplating what pieces of her did my father want me to carry? Who was this woman? What was her life like? As her namesake what is my blessing and burden to bare?
Sitting in my office for a few minutes I stared at her face what parts of her could I connect to? It struck me that I had never know anyone had this picture let alone that it existed on social media for three years. It also made me realize that if these new siblings had access to this picture, they obviously had others. So I asked for other pictures.
What I received, 11 pictures in total, range from singular shots of just my father, to images of my parents together (the first time I had ever seen them in a photograph in.my.life.), to my father surrounded by his father and siblings. Images of a life I had barely pieced together through stories. As each photo dinged into my phone, I scanned the landscape around them, looking through pieces of my dad’s life and death. I thought about what it means to have these images as part of my own archive. I felt a sense of relief, I too hold keys to my father’s life, but also a small amount of bitterness these existed for decades without my knowledge. What else and who else were outside of my knowledge I would come to find out months later.
August 17th, my Father’s birthday, I awoke to a barrage of messages from five other sisters. What had been two relationships has expanded to seven over two months. In a series of lengthy text messages I met estranged sisters three through seven who reside in Houston, in Minnesota, in Rhode Island; in places I had passed through or visited without knowing they shared a part of my family tree.
II. And oh sister now that you’re grieving*
Ten days later on August 29th I hopped on the Long Island Rail Road at 10 AM. After a six-day excursion from Lowell -> Boston ->Brooklyn, I headed to Pine Lawn Memorial Cemetery to see my father. As a teenager I spent ample time sneaking into cemeteries after midnight to have picnics. Being around the dead has never felt foreign to me, just another part of the process. This visit though was different. It was my third visit to see him, but was the first time I had gone alone. Prior visits had been with my mother and my husband.
The grounds of the Cemetery are lush, green grass and grey headstones are mixed in with large Venetian fountains and even bigger old New England trees. Crossing the gates of the Cemetery into the quaint welcome center, I was greeted by an attendant and provided a detailed map of this very large cemetery. Looking over street signs and confirming with the map I passed fountains, garden structures, whole family sections with large monuments. When I reached the Statute of the golden lady, I followed the directions from the Welcome Center Attendant- section 3, row 83, near a tree. But there were three tree… and I didn’t see his name.
The golden lady also formally known as “La Paix / Peace,” watched sweat drip into my eyeballs as I paced the sections, sipping water and rubbing my face on my shirt, looking down, then at the map, then up at her. I COULDN’T FIND IT! How is it not here? By that point I was clearly distressed and frustrated. A kind groundskeeper asked who I was here to see (awkward) and after I showed him the map he directed me back section 3, count down to row 83, near a tree.
I walked back to where I had started, counting 78, 79, 80. At row 83, I walked past other people who once were above ground, saying aloud the names of the dead until I saw his name.
I said it out loud a prayer, a promise, a reminder, and a piece of it caught in my throat. What should I call you in my head, dad, father, Deddeh, maker of me; what would you have called me in return?
Looking across the way, other mourners emptied out of cars and meandered towards a funeral. Watching the burial, I felt a certain and complete kind of loneliness. I wondered who among them would visit their dead?
It occurred to me that I didn’t know if anyone had been to see my dad in years.
I watched the mourners wander back towards their respective cars, standing at the side of the road. I wondered in those quiet moments, if my father was lonely on Long Island so far away from a home and a country and a family. I wondered if my children would visit my grave; if I’d be worth a journey someday.
III. that were supposed to be glorious and fine
As I approach my 29th birthday, I am reminded of this journey and how my week back East opened something inside of me.
During my visit home I was regaled with tales about my father and his foul mouth. About his ability to cuss you out with a smile and make up swear words not Oxford Dictionary approved. My brother shared stories about my father’s ability to bring people together everyone loved to be around him (even if they got cussed out). My mother reiterated his ability to say whatever was on his mind, marveled his fierceness and certainty as a lawyer where no judge or opposing counsel could step on his toes, the poor mans Lawyer.
Each story, binding the myth to the man, a true bombast and a walking contradiction.
What bravery I have yet to unlock, how strong am I, if I too will be as bombastic, as carefree, as loyal to my craft and my convictions, if I’ll match up is a longer story in the making. For now though, I’m no longer the passive recipient of other people’s memories. Now, I am embracing what it means to be a steward of a legacy.
*each section title are lyrics from Oh Sister by Neutral Milk Hotel