At Thanksgiving, Micah asks me, "Where's Aunt Beverly?"
He notices that Uncle Charlie is alone and he senses that something is different. I am tempted at first to use a euphamism like "passed on" or "left us" but instead I tell the truth.
"She died yesterday."
"Does that mean she's not coming back?" he asks.
"But I like her. She's fun. She smiles."
He's quiet for awhile and then adds, "She always plays with me and Gabriel."
It's a three year old's eulogy and although it doesn't capture all that she was, it certainly captures a part of her that I will remember. If Micah has taught me anything about life and death, it's that people matter. I used to believe that life was a story and there were minor characters. Now I see it as an overlapping of stories, not with minor characters, but with major characters that I never got the chance to know as well as I could have (due to time and space).
Micah's right. I miss Beverly's smile on Thanksgiving. She was the first family member to giving me the passing grade when Christy first introduced me years ago. I remember that we talked about Van Morrison of all things, because even though we didn't have much in common, she wanted me to feel like I mattered. I think about all of this as Micah runs over to play in the dirt with his cousin. For a moment, I get teary-eyed, so I move inside to see if the Cowboys will pull out a surprise victory against the Saints.
When I first married Christy, I thought she was crazy for referring to her "relatives" as "family." I grew up isolated from most of my extended family, so I never quite understood her language. Over time, I began to see the value of an extended family. It happened with swim lessons and dinners at Aunt Jan's house or with breakfast on Sunday mornings with Aunt Sheri. When Christy completed a triathlon (pregnant, nonetheless) it was her extended family (her nephews and her Aunt Beverly) who cheered her on during the hardest moments.
I'm beginning to see that the nuclear, just-those-who-live-in-the-house view of family is limited and myopic. It's why I feel grateful that my own kids see my parents and my sister and my wife's family so much. It's why I recognize the gift of being two doors down from my mother-in-law. For all the talk of recovering the sense of community lost in America, I'm convinced that for my own children the answer hasn't been found in programs or in megachurches or in master-planned communities. It's been in the large, extended family that has collectively loved them well.