Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Hillbilly Family Comes Together

I was sound asleep when the call came in. I had a knot in my stomach as I picked up the phone. I knew if someone was calling at this hour, it couldn’t possibly be good news. My instincts were confirmed as my father informed me my grandmother, my mom’s mother, was in the hospital and the prognosis wasn’t good. Within the hour, he called again to say she had passed away.

After the initial shock and sorrow, the phone trail started, with each member of the family calling another. After the initial calls were made, we now had to figure out the logistics of getting everyone back home, back to Kentucky. Where would we stay, how would we get there, who would drive with whom, and who would be flying in? It has been a long time, years even, since I’ve been back. Friday was a flurry of activity; coordinating flights, reserving rental cars and rearranging schedules for the next several days.

Sitting in my living room after all the travel arrangements were made, it suddenly hit me. My grandmother was gone. With no more “things to do”, the shell started to crack. I began to cry and feel the sorrow and pain of losing someone I loved so dearly. How and why was she taken from us? We are all so spread out and I’m the only one in Los Angeles. At times like this, you need your family and I couldn’t wait to be with them. I needed their hugs.

We arrive back in Kentucky. Its hugs, kisses and tears all around. My mom steps out of the car at my uncle’s house and I watch them embrace, holding on to one another so tight. My tears start again as I feel the depth of their sorrow over losing their mother. They just don’t seem to want to let go of one another. As the day progresses, more family arrives and everyone is excited to be together again.

The first 36 hours are spent reconnecting, eating, sharing stories, laughing, eating, sorting through old pictures, and eating some more. We have so much fun going through old pictures of all of us and my grandmother. Could that really be us? Did we really look that young at one time? Were we ever that skinny? After dinner one night we all gather around to play some games. We wind up playing this crazy game called Mad Gab. For those of you who don’t know the game, I suggest playing it sometime; it can be a lot of fun. It’s the perfect game for a loud, hillbilly family. I realize as we play this game, that my grandmother’s outrageousness and her sense of humor have been passed down to her children and even some of her grandchildren. My uncles are like two big kids and their love of life is infectious. I realize how much I admire them. We holler and make such a ruckus the neighbors two doors down can probably hear us. We laugh so hard our sides hurt and for just a moment, we forget the reality of what has brought us all together.

The next morning we wake up, still giddy from the evening of games before. The storytelling and laughs continue. Even though we’re piled several deep in a house, we are truly enjoying our time together. Then suddenly later in the afternoon, about two hours before the viewing is scheduled to begin, the house becomes still and everyone is quiet. The reality of it all starts to settle in. We start thinking about what lies ahead and know it’s going to be difficult for all of us.

We walk from my uncle’s house to the funeral home for the viewing. The minute we walk in the funeral home, the tears begin to flow. It is now truly time to say goodbye to someone we loved so dearly. We just aren’t ready to let her go. We spend the next five hours crying, hugging, greeting friends and relatives and offering one another support. We are all pleased, but not the least bit surprised, to see how many people my grandmother has touched. There is a constant flow of friends coming in to say goodbye to my grandmother and offer the family support. It is a much quieter evening when we arrive back home.

The next morning the subdued mood continues. We now have the funeral to face. We arrive at the funeral home and the tears start flowing again. The pictures we have spent the last few days going through are playing up on the screen, each one a reflection of my grandmother’s personality. We sing some hymns, my uncle Gordon does the opening prayer and then my cousin Ben gets up. The first thing he says when he gets to the podium is “horse feathers” and we all begin to laugh. This was one of my grandmother’s favorite expressions and with this one word he instantly makes us all feel at ease. Ben continues, by sharing some stories of my grandmother. One is about a Christmas just a few years ago when she claimed she could still put her feet up behind her head and then proceeded to show everyone. I missed this particular Christmas at home, so I was not present for this feat, but I could picture it just like I was there. That was just my grandmother, always saying and doing outrageous things. She enjoyed being the center of attention and always kept us entertained. Ben continued with a few more stories that made us laugh and remember what a remarkable woman she was. He talked about how he did not have a single bad memory of my grandmother, not a single one, and I think all of us grandchildren feel that way. He stopped all our tears and made us all laugh along the way.

I’d like to say a special thanks to my cousin Ben for honoring my grandmother in such a meaningful way. He truly has a way with words and got to the essence of who my grandmother was. I know my grandmother would be pleased with how he handled everything and I know she is very proud of him.

Now that we had said goodbye to our grandmother, it was time to say goodbye to each other. There are more hugs and tears as we say goodbye, along with promises to see each other again soon. Hopefully we will not wait until the next funeral to get together again. But that’s the thing about family, even though you may live far apart and go months, sometimes even years, without seeing or speaking to each other, the love and connection doesn’t stop. Family is always close by ready to offer love and support whenever you may need it.

Have any of you seen the movie Death at a Funeral? For those of you that haven’t, it’s a film about all the crazy things that can go wrong when a family comes together for a funeral. It made me laugh out loud. I know it may seem odd to mention a movie like this considering the circumstances, but it really made me stop and think about the funerals I’ve been to, which unfortunately has been many. Now my family has never experienced any of the outrageous things that happen in the film, but we have had some fun times together over the years when we’ve come together to honor those we’ve lost. It makes you realize how fun and crazy family can be. A funeral doesn’t have to be such a sad and somber event. My grandmother would not have wanted that. While many tears were shed, there was also a lot of love and laughter. It is just how my grandmother would have wanted it to be.

I’d like to say thanks to my Uncle David and Aunt Paula for opening their home to us. I was worried about living in such close quarters with this crazy bunch, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I really enjoyed my time with them. As we say in Kentucky, “they’re good people.” I’d also like to say a special note of thanks to the members of each of my uncles’ churches who came from all over to offer their support. There isn’t a more kind and generous bunch. A special thanks to the members of my Uncle David’s church, the Paintsville Church of Christ, for everything they did to support us, to honor my grandmother and for all the amazing meals they cooked for us. They made sure we did not go hungry while we were there. I forgot how delicious real home cooking can be. I won’t forget again.

This hillbilly now heads back to Los Angeles with a full stomach, an open heart and the hope to see everyone again real soon.

While this was a sad occasion to get together, it was truly a special trip for this traveling hillbilly. It is a trip I needed to take. I learned a lot about myself and saw how truly good and kind-hearted people can be. I realized how blessed I am to have such a great family. I am surrounded by so much love. We may be hillbillies, and we may be a crazy and rowdy bunch, but my family is fun, genuine, warm and good to their core. I have an amazing family.

I dedicate this posting to Myrtle, an incredible woman, whose strength and compassion inspired us all. She was a true survivor. She faced breast cancer with grace, dignity and her enduring sense of humor. Like many of the obstacles she faced, she survived the breast cancer, and came out a stronger person for it. Unfortunately she was taken from us unexpectedly and too early. But we know in our hearts she is in a better place and we will see her again one day. Until then, we take comfort in knowing that God now has one more angel looking out for us.

Goodbye Grandmother, I love you with all my heart.