After my sister Pat died last August in a memory care facility in Massachusetts, my nephew Adam and I decided to gather members of our far-flung family for a reunion and memorial in her honor.
The last family gathering had been seven years ago, when we met over Christmas break to get her out of her 5-bedroom house and into an assisted living facility. Adam’s father had died just a year ago, and he put together a small event in Detroit, but most family members were not able to attend. We decided that, despite the varied covid restrictions in different communities we’d take on the challenge to provide an environment of comfort and safety for a family gathering before someone else in the family dies.
One sister’s doctor wouldn’t let her fly, so we started by finding a place within driving distance for her. Pat’s best friend Sybil from Detroit had spoken of a resort on Lake Erie where her family had gathered but we learned that those cabins are booked a year ahead of time. Adam searched for a house nearby and found one that would sleep 10 people. He booked it for the Columbus Day/Indigenous People Day weekend, to increase the likelihood that teachers and students might be able to attend. We sent invitations.
The response overwhelmed us. Family members would travel from Embudo, NM and Reno NV, Desert Hot Springs and Mission Viejo, CA, Louisville, KY and Miamisburg Ohio, Valley View and Fort Worth, TX, Springfield, MO and Lincoln NE. Adding Adam’s family from Sudbury, MA, and Rich and I from Pittsburgh, PA, we would need sleeping accommodations for 21 people and mitigation efforts to keep everyone safe. I rented a second house on Lake Erie a few miles from the first one.
As the matriarch of the family, I took my responsibilities as seriously as I had when growing up the eldest of 6 children. Meal planning began weeks ahead as it would be necessary to drive the food we’d need for 3 meals a day for 4 days for 21 people the four hours from Pittsburgh. and We’d need to borrow extra ice chests and other items to make that possible. Creating a video of my sister’s life to show at her memorial turned out to be a great gift to me. As I went through photos reliving much of her life, I relieved the events of the life we shared together. I noticed whenever I worked on the project, I felt a smile come across my face. It reminded me how much my sister would love having the family together to enjoy one another in a place where there were fun things to do –a lighthouse tour, the annual Apple Festival, kayaking, hiking, or just putting your feet in the water while searching for shells.
Given COVID mindfulness, and the fact that a few people had not been vaccinated, we assigned people to sleeping rooms in pods with the people they lived with back home. Adam secured instant COVID tests, and most people gladly took the tests and celebrated passing them. We held the group meals and the memorial event outside beside the lake, and fortunately, the weather relatives cooperated with that plan.
Was it all worth it? I haven’t gotten the evaluations back from everyone but my vivid memories from the memorial include the sacred silence as the group gathered in the early evening on the patio beside the lake. A streak of pink color spread across the blue sky as speakers played Celine Dion’s version of Ave Maria followed by Pat’s grandchildren each reciting a poem to honor their grandmother; the “I could talk about..”InterPlay activity where people mined memories of Pat with a partner and then shared stories with the whole group; the following and leading partner dance to the song, Come and Play which put smiles on the faces of cousins playing together for the first time, and demonstrated the skilled choreography of Adam and his wife Liz who claim to not have danced together for a very long while; and everyone’s raucous laughter at my siblings’ tales of the mischief they made when our nurse mother, who worked nights and tried to sleep in the daytime, put me in charge.
In reflection, there is no substitute for multigenerational gatherings when someone dies. I’m grateful for how they tell the long story; reminding us of our ancestors and where we’ve come from, show us how we have co-created one another, and offer a glimpse of the future and what may lie ahead.