This past week has been a brutal one for my family.  We’ve lost two women, two matriarchs, in a matter of five days.  One is blood family, and one is “family” to me… my godmother.  I typically reveal brutal honesty and this post is no different as I expose my very tender and torn heart.  In the end, I take great comfort in the only One who can provide such comfort and in the words and kindness from my friends and family who have pulled together to express their love and concern for my family.

I loved both of these women very much and I wanted to let you all know what they mean to ME.

Some families are made only of blood, the blood flowing through your veins being the same, or half of the same, as the ones flowing in the ones you were surrounded with.  You shared last names, lineage and your aunts and uncles were their’s.

Others of us have had the BEAUTIFUL and most wonderful experience of adopting, and being adopted into, other families.  This happened to me, as a child, by way of close friends from school and by the extension of my family.

My Aunt Sally gave me a bridal shower with my “family.” She had me do a game where, blindfolded, I had to get dressed out of a suitcase she packed… in front of everyone. I am seen here wearing a massive bra and my Uncle Leo’s shorts are under that apron. She was a lively, funny character.  My Great Aunt Ruth is laughing her fool head off at me in the background…  I can still hear her cackle.

My godmother was someone who I lovingly referred to as my Great Aunt.  This family was in-laws to my family yet I made no distinction.  When my cousin would come to town to visit and refer to these people as “aunts” and “uncles,” it seemed appropriate that I did the same…  and I was treated the same.  Because of this extension, I gained 10 great aunts and uncles and NUMEROUS cousins who I otherwise wouldn’t have had in my life.  God is so amazing and blessed me so much with this family.

When a child is baptized in the Catholic religion, godparents are chosen.  Not only are those people to be helping in faith formation of those children, they also are taking on the role of guardian should the parents pass away.  This was a truth that I understood at a very young age.  My Uncle Leo and Aunt Sally would raise me if something were to happen to my parents.

My First Holy Communion. My godparents are behind me and my friend, Kim, is there with me.

“Family” seems to be an antiquated idea.  My grandma’s family was very large and included people who would be formally known as “guardians.”  My Grandma Rose was guardian to her little brother and great aunts and uncles of hers were guardians to other family members.  So, family has always meant so much to my grandma as she left her photo albums of black and white pictures laying about for me to learn about my distant, or dead, relatives.  By way of my grandma’s little brother is how we fell into this particular “family.”

Now, this “family” had quite a variety of characters of very bold and loud men and women, all of my “aunts” and “uncles.”  All of which I loved very much and all of them treated me the same as other great nieces and great nephews.  I longed for family gatherings, typically when out-of-towners would come to visit.  The other time for family gatherings, of course, were weddings and funerals.

Uncle Leo, Grandma Rose, Aunt Minnie, Aunt Sally. This particular photo was difficult to see, it caught me off guard. I take great comfort that they are all together and will greet me when I arrive.

Starting in 1985, these fine men and women started to pass away.  I’ve been “dealing with” these funerals for a long time and my godfather, my Great Uncle Leo dying in 2008.  Last Thursday, my godmother, my great-aunt Sally, joined all the other patriarchs and matriarchs who went before her.  As of that day, I have no great aunts and uncles, adopted or real, and no grandparents living.  My Aunt Sally was the last.

Only those who knew her personally would understand what kind of hole this leaves a person with.  This woman had so much love to give to her own immediate family and all of her nieces and nephews and godchildren.  She was a one of a kind woman.  After my Grandma Rose died, and I decided to take up crocheting, it was my Aunt Sally who made me remember what my grandma had taught.  It was my Aunt Sally who taught me how to happily live a humble life.  It was my Aunt Sally who showed me what it was like to suffer with dignity in caring for the sick and in suffering by oneself.  She was a one of a kind and the torch to matriarch has passed to the next generation amongst all the women in these families…  my mom, now, being one of them.  Solely, by herself in our family extension.

Grandma Rose and Aunt Lisa

On Monday, my mom’s sister, our beloved artist, passed away too.  The level of grief I have about this is very personal and difficult to process.  I have not felt it in a very long time.  With my great-aunt, who was suffering from leukemia and was 88 years old, it’s more or less expected.  You’re prepared.  Yet, coming from a long line of people who made it to their 90’s I never expected my Aunt Lisa to pass before turning 80.  We were not prepared.

Before creatives needed permission from people like Liz Gilbert to go and make their art, there were people like my aunt.  Early on my aunt found the balance between raising children, being a single working mother and also doing her art.  She was a beautiful watercolor artist and photographer.  In these past few years she achieved her dream of being “professional” and had her work displayed and sold.

Aunt Lisa, cousin Janet, Aunt Sally

She didn’t wait until she retired to do the things that brought her joy.  She didn’t require anyone’s permission and she certainly didn’t seek anyone’s approval in her work.  She KNEW what her calling was and she had no problem balancing her calling in life with her duties in life.  She worked, she lived, and she did her calling.  She used the gift that God gave her and worked her talent that brought her peace. Even when she recently downsized, and not in the best health, she made one room in her apartment an art studio and continued to do what she loved.

My aunt, like all of my loving relatives, took such an interest in me.  She was interested in what I was studying both in school and out.  She wanted to know not only what was going on, literally, around me but what was stirring in my heart.  She was the only one who spoke up when she saw how serious my boyfriend (now husband) and I seemed and did a heart check on me about it.  She was someone who I could confide in when things around me weren’t good.

Before we had Christian women out there speaking about the “sisterhood,” it was my aunt who was living it and leading it.  While from a new age bent, she taught me a lot about the strength of a woman and how WE were the ones God chose to bear children.  She taught me the importance of surrounding yourself with women who will lift you up, with women who can be salty with you (and likewise) and with women who make you stronger yet softer.

She also wanted me to understand how important our family genealogy was.  She was very interested in learning what I uncovered in my family research.  Aunt Lisa very much believed that people were born with things in their DNA, always reminding me that her father was an artisan (forming and carving beautiful monuments found here), and that I come from a long line of people creating with their hands.  When I showed her some of my work in architecture school, she was particularly interested in my monument to the Native American.  I’ll never forget her interest in me and her encouragement of me pursuing creativity in my life.

Another reason why my aunt is important for me…  most people who think about how or why a particular person impacted their faith, it’s usually because they led them to their own.  For example, a friend of my mom’s was impactful in that she shared her Baptist beliefs with me when I was a teenager.  She didn’t shy away from the hard discussions about how our two religions were different and yet she was tender with me in her approach and I never felt like I was less because I didn’t believe the same.  Still true, she was trying to lead me to her religion…  maybe not because she felt it was the most correct religion but maybe because she wanted me to feel freedom in my similar (yet very different) beliefs that she knew I didn’t have.

With my aunt, however, she took my religious struggle in a different direction.  When I contacted her in college about the conflicts I saw in my religion she encouraged me to read some philosophical books and then some new age books and even some books focused on shaman and Native American beliefs.  A few years later I was swimming in this sea of confusion, still with the God of my childhood, until I was forced with making a decision about which direction I would go.

Sisters with their mama.

Ultimately, you see where it led me.  You see where I am at.  I would not be here, and I wouldn’t have my feet so strongly planted, if it wasn’t for Aunt Lisa challenging my beliefs in her own search for understanding.

So here I am, in my midlife year with a sudden loss of two matriarchs, both of which I didn’t have enough time with.  The fact of the matter is that we are all given an expiration date.  Our book was written before we were even planted in our mothers’ wombs.  God knew the kinds of deaths these women would endure and the pain in the witnessing of them, and the grieving of them, we would experience.

I reached out to a friend recently, in tears, as I am processing all of this.  I wasn’t met with clichés, and I wasn’t met with empty words.  One particular thing that stuck out with me in the conversation was this: there is no such thing as purposeless pain.  It is reminiscent, yet a much better phrasing, of the saying, “God has a reason for allowing things to happen.”  That latter phrasing I want to scream when I hear it as I grieve, yet I succumb to thinking it as I see other people suffering.

No such thing as purposeless pain…  any pain these women felt as they passed and any pain we feel as we grieve are not purposeless.  As my Aunt Sally would say, “we offer it up.”  We don’t quickly cry and stuff it and get on with life.  We don’t find things to help us cope with the grief like pills or gurus or diving into a hobby.  We sit in grief for a while.  We allow grief to do its job, because it does have a job.  We allow the cycle of grief to sharpen (and SOFTEN) us and we come out on the other side empowered with a deeper understanding of life.

Finally, we again affirm the truth in the existence of heaven and ensure we have done the one and only right thing securing our placement in it.  We surround ourselves in community with people who will pray for us and keep us on the right trajectory.

Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. – Romans 10:9-13

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. – Revelation 21:4

Thank you to all of our friends who have prayed for and reached out to my family.  It is very interesting, as I’ve gotten older, the kind of job I have in family crisis.  It was a very involved experience for me and I expect it’s a new role for the next generation now.  Yet as scary and uncomfortable this new role is, I am so blessed.  So blessed to be able to pick up the phone and tell people, family and “family” both near and far.  So blessed to cry on the phone with people.  So blessed to know that the blood running through my veins is deeper than the DNA embedded in it.  I.  AM.  SO.  BLESSED.