I’m a writer, so here it is: My Aunt Margie passed away on Monday, of probably a massive stroke. Dad called to tell me. This is Dad: he always starts out the phone calls, and then Mom takes over. I think it’s because there’s only so much time he can stand to be social, and he has to work himself up to it. I’m his daughter, but I don’t think that really makes it any easier to talk on the phone. He has three daughters and two sons; he came from a family of nine kids. As the youngest, he’s had some of them pass before him. Margie is his older sister–if I’m interpreting things right, the one who mothered him, as a kid.
He told me Margie was gone. And then. Well, I knew I shouldn’t push for details, but I listened. And he told me he’d talked to her on Friday, he had a good talk with her. He’d been going to go over and cut wood for them, but it’d rained, and the wood would have been too wet. Personally, I’m terrified of chainsaws, but I think he likes them. He said the last time he went over there to cut wood, he didn’t tell anyone, and she chewed him out for it. Not…chewed him out. Said something. Teased him about it, probably. We’re a family of teasers and crap-givers.
He called again Monday afternoon, and we talked about the service. Margie wanted her body donated to science, but they can wait until after the service, he said. Then we talked about the weather. As I get older this makes more sense. Every time you talk about the weather, you’re talking about everyone. This last couple of years in Colorado, I saw it: fires that swept over your friends, taking everything from some, barely touching others. Flooding, the same way. When you talk about the weather you’re saying life goes on but you have to pay attention to it while it’s going on.
We do have to go on. I do. I thought it wasn’t hitting me as bad as other people who have passed over the last few years: Margie led a good life, both as a good person and as a life that wasn’t lived out in shades of despair and numbness, and believe me, that’s worth celebrating rather than mourning, because I’ve seen both now. But I’m having trouble functioning this morning, because in order to go on, I have to go on with Aunt Margie, rather than separate from her. I can’t leave her behind.
It’s a family tradition to tease each other, and I’m sure there’s lots of stories going around about goofy things she’s done. Or there will be those stories going around, or there should be. There’s always some story, with them, of some dumbass thing you’ve done that tells everyone exactly who you are. In a group of people plagued with eyeroll-worthy orneriness, it’s probably vital that these things get passed around. Plus there’s just so damned many of us. ”Who do you belong to?” was a common question I got growing up. I ask it at family reunions now. The stories help keep us sorted out.
I’m sure Aunt Margie had a bunch of stories that she told about herself, embarrassing stories. That was just the way she was. She liked to laugh. But here’s my story for her, one part of what I want to bring with me:
We’d just moved from the farm out to Flandreau. Because her clan lived out in Madison, I hadn’t really gotten to know her before then. I was in tenth grade and at a complete loss for pretty much everything. Except for one thing. And I know that this is going to be both offensive to the family and something that makes them nod because it’s true. I was relieved to be out of the gossip.
I wasn’t the center of gossip, thank God. No, it was just that the farm itself was the center of gossip, the geographical ground zero of the Knippling clan and all its drama. There was always some low-level feud going on between wives. Some argument between brothers. Someone calling someone else a fool behind their backs.
A couple of hundred miles away, it was restful. Peaceful.
I tried to tell this to Margie one day. I had to tell someone, and my parents weren’t the ones to talk to. They were going through a lot, good and bad, having left the farm. And one day we were over at her house for some reason or another, and it just came out. Horribly, awkwardly.
I’m prettty sure I insulted the people she loved best. She forgave me. She said, “You don’t get to pick your family. You don’t have to like them. You just have to love them.”
It’s true, and it helped. I learned to roll eyes with the best of them. And what she didn’t say, but what I have also taken with me, is that they just have to love me. Whenever I made a choice I knew that would have the gossips all a-flutter, I thought about her words, and went on with what I felt called to do.
She wasn’t a saint, or at least she wouldn’t let anyone call her one. But everyone who knew her knows that she is one of the pillars of everything solid and merciful in our lives, no matter how much or little she touched them.
For example, I’ve talked to other people who were so filled with despair that they say things like the world is awful and people are crap and why bother. Well, but then there’s my Aunt Margie, see? I always knew those people were wrong. It’s not the world itself that’s wrong, because if that were the case, then Aunt Margie would have been wrong. And she wasn’t. I just can’t plumb the depths of despair because of her and people like her. I already know better.
This causes me to get extremely irritable at times; I just want to shake people for being such idiots when it’s just not necessary. And so I know I can’t be her. I’m just not that patient. And I’m not that forgiving. But I’ll try.
Because I like her. Very much.