Aunt Yaya

Christmas has always been my favorite time of year. As a kid growing up in the rolling hills of southeast Tennessee, Christmas was filled with family, good food, caroling, and lots of presents. We were spoiled. On one side of the family, there were only two grandchildren: me and my sister. Every year on Christmas Eve, the tradition was to go to my mom's parent's house "in town." We were showered with gifts, an amazing spread of goodies, and I couldn't get enough of the multicolored lights on the tree, reflecting off the blue crushed velvet couches in my Nanny's formal living room. She always made me my very own sweet potato casserole in a corningware dish that was loaded with extra marshmallows. If we didn't get the presents we asked for at their house, we knew we still had two more chances since gifts would be opened the next morning at home and the next night at the other grandparents.'

On the other side of the family, there were seven grandchildren. I am the oldest, then my sister, then there's Britt, Eddie, Catie, Lindsay, and Alesha. Five out of the seven of us lived within several hundred yards of each other. My grandfather owned land and when the four children married, he gave them their own piece of that land on which to build. There were very few other houses besides ours for miles. My cousins were daily fixtures and my aunts were more like older sisters. We grew up roaming from house to house, begging for snacks and romping through the fields, rock piles, and woods. There were a couple of ponds for fishing, gardens, where we were all expected to help when it was strawberry or corn season, and a swing that my grandfather hung from an old oak in their front yard. The words that come to mind when I remember my childhood in that place are WARM and ADVENTURE.

But, as they tend to do, things change. Everyone moved away from our family land except for one aunt and uncle. The cousins grew up, and we traded days of adventure for lives of responsibility and grown-up things. Many of us are married and have families of our own. And I, for one, have spent some time wishing I could re-create what we had back then for my own daughter. We only see each other a few times a year now and for the past several years, we've been excited to come home for family gatherings at Cathy and Ed's house. I think of their house as "home" still because they are the only ones left on the old property.

Turning down that road, heading toward their house, is like going back in time for me. Everywhere I look, there are memories. Like the time we walked down to the church cemetery at Halloween to scare ourselves, and the time we forked Cathy's yard and put shaving cream all down her fence. I remember where the gardens were and I see all of us still, on strawberry picking day, coming in with red faces and half full pint baskets. I see the weeping willow by the pond and the ducks that waddled up every time we came near in hopes of the dry corn we fed them. I see hikes into the "enchanted forest," between the two tall trees, looking for leprachauns. I remember our horses, sledding in winter (with the ducks), dogs and cats by the dozen, and being pulled behind Papaw's tractor on a wagon. And oh, the bicycles. Our bikes were our freedom! We were allowed to ride anywhere between my grandparents and all of the aunts and uncles.
As an adult, the fun times included Cathy and Ed's hot tub on the back porch gazing up at the starry sky and wishing we could freeze time. We would campout at their house for holidays, and loved Cathy's elaborate decorations for Christmas. It was cozy, familiar, and we knew we were loved and accepted there.
Two summers ago, in 2014, we had the absolute perfect July 4th at her house. The weather was PERFECT...not hot, cool breeze, and everyone was there. We even had a pickup softball game in the front yard. My Papaw had not yet died and for a few hours, life was just the way it should be. Now, I'm so grateful for that day. So.much.good. Papaw sat all day in a chaise lounge under a huge tree in Cathy's yard. We took turns sitting beside him, visiting and laughing the day away.
Then, just a month later, my Papaw was gone, and the very next August, Cathy was diagnosed with cancer.

Last weekend, after Cathy was moved to hospice, my cousins and I went down to her house to clean and just be together. Somehow, during a tragedy, you just want to be with the people who get it. Get you. The ones who know what it all means to you, even though you can't express it. In those moments, when you're with your people, no explanations are needed. So we went down to do something. Feeling helpless, knowing we were losing her, being at her house was hard and at the same time, the only place I wanted to be. But I noticed that chaise lounge. Now, it was overturned, rusted, and the tree was bare. It was glaring. So much had changed in only two short years in our family. The people who made me who I am were leaving, one by one. And as much as I tried, I could not hold on to them.

To date, we've lost four people from our original families: my uncle Tristan, my sister, Papaw, and now Cathy.  Death is strange...we all know it's coming, but it's never enough time. That place and those people are so much a part of who I am, I'm still learning how to live without them. This blog is just my process in telling the story...part of healing. I had a mentor tell me once that, "it really is dumb what we do as humans. We love...knowing we're going to lose people...but we do it anyway. It really is dumb." I would add that it's even dumber when we don't allow ourselves to love for fear of being hurt. For then, we've lost so much more than if we never loved.

I'm so thankful for my family.


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