Growing up in a household divided by divorce conveys a multitude of different experiences to a child. Of course, there’s the readily apparent competition between the parents, and luckily my sister and I didn’t really deal much with that, there’s the tension between former in-laws, which we did see some of, but there’s also something much greater. When my parents divorced, my sister and I were welcomed into a new family.
The following is going to be an intensely personal post, so if you don’t want to read it, go ahead and close the window. You’ve been forewarned.
My mother is an incredibly lucky woman, I think. Although she and my father didn’t work out, she managed to work her way into a long-term relationship with a genuinely good man who has a fantastic family. James and I didn’t always have the best relationship, as you might expect from a teenager who’s dealing with divorced parents and having to figure out who this new guy is, beefing on your old man’s turf. But I always felt welcomed by James’ family. His mother and father, brother and sisters welcomed Lisa and I into their family as if we were one of their own.
I know that in the previous post I wrote about looking through the past either without enough criticism or with too much criticism, but having maintained a relatively regular relationship with my mom and my stepdad, I think I can eliminate the biases, both positive and negative. I was privileged to know James’ mother, Jeannine. If I said that I remembered the first time I met James’ parents, I’d be lying to you, so I won’t. But I do remember definitively watching the 1998 Winter Olympics with Carl and Jeannine, sitting in the front room where Carl and Jeannine each had their recliners and there was a sofa underneath a bookshelf filled with old bottles, like those you might find tonics and remedies in.
And I remember Jeannine, always asking how I was doing, when I’d come home from college and then even after I grew into being somewhat an adult.
And I remember the last time I saw her a couple weeks ago. In spirit, she was the same woman I remembered from nearly twenty years hence. But her body had finally thrown in the towel. She seemed to be at peace with her situation. She was to be discharged from the hospital and returned home within the day – and she was. Seeing her for the last time reminded me of seeing my dad’s stepdad for the last name. Incidentally, he was also named Carl, a man who I grew up with as my papa, a grandfather in all but blood. I got to see papa for the last time at grandma’s and his home a week before he passed, and the final memory of seeing him sleeping in a recliner struck me because of how normal it was. There was nothing special to it, it was exactly as he had always been. Seeing Jeannine in the hospital was a little different, because I hadn’t seen her in the hospital before. However, everything else was the same.
Much as I felt the love from the man who wasn’t biologically my grandfather, I felt the love from this woman who wasn’t biologically my grandmother. And it was the same love I had always gotten from her and her family for the last two decades. And, Jeannine, that’s all I can say about you and your family. Once I grew up, I understood the love from family, even if it wasn’t from the family that we expected when we were born. And I can’t ever express adequately how grateful I am for what you and your family gave to me – to say nothing of what you’ve done for my mother. You will always be a flame that burns brightly for those whose lives you touched.
And I know that you probably didn’t understand, know, or perhaps cared why I decided to leave the Catholic Church and become Jewish, but there are a ton of beautiful traditions in Judaism that make humanity more divine. And I think the ending of the Friday night service with the mourner’s kaddish and the following phrase is the reason why it strikes me so deeply.
Jeannine Duquette LaFontaine, may your memory be for a blessing. I will probably not be able to make it home to say goodbye one last time before you return whence we all came, but I would rather have my final memory of you be that hour in the hospital that my mom and I spent with you. If there is an afterlife, I know that you will be in the company of the good.
There will be a lot of people saying this, many of whom who were closer to you than me, but I will miss you. Just as I miss my grandfathers. Because, again, you were family to me.