“We’re going to lose this entire generation of parents soon,” my cousin said to me last summer. My father had died a year earlier, and her father, my Dad’s brother, was struggling to walk and remember details.
The next death, though, was not his but the third brother’s wife, who died a few days before Christmas. Her funeral was a couple of weeks ago, and we gathered in Cleveland from across the country to say goodbye.
Our parents, all in their 80’s now, are leaving us one by one. And I think my cousins and I are struggling not only with overwhelming sadness but grief for a way of life that will be ending.
Our recent family history took hold at the turn of the century, when my great-grandmother built a summer house in a artist’s community near a beach in Rhode Island. Soon another family settled in, our grandmothers became friends, and the child of one married the child of another. Over the years, brothers and sisters, and cousins of all kinds grew up together, sharing a few weeks each July or August in or near the Carter and Wood compounds, which had grown to several houses and a cabin situated near a path leading to Quonochontaug Pond.
The gardens and fruit trees lay between the houses and the backyard wood shop, where our dads built boats under the direction of my stern but loving grandfather. As we grew up, we were also allowed in to use the potter’s wheel or build a bird house. Smells of turpentine and wood shavings are forever embedded in my brain.
Rhode Island became home for me, the child of an Army officer who moved his family around the world every year. Freedom, not easily accorded to children these days, meant taking the boat out at a young age, learning to navigate the pond rocks. We often ran (freely and without parents) between houses in the dark or even down to the dock to watch the lobsters crawling in the shallows.
Our grandmothers arranged summer activities, which often included putting on plays and fundraising for The Fresh Air fund. Fathers built stages, grandmothers and mothers sewed costumes, and cousins performed Peter Pan and Mutiny on the Bounty for the neighborhood. As we turned into teenagers, the activities changed to walks on the beach, games in the living room, or sneaking out at night! Time often stood still. Coffee on the porch, blueberry picking, or a sail on a windy day–these moments experienced year after year gave me a sense of place that I needed so much.
As we cousins married and had children, we brought them along from California, New York, Maryland/DC, and Virginia. For them, too, Rhode Island continues to hold great meaning as they hear the stories about their great-grandparents who painted in the art room, wrote books and articles for the local newspaper, built wooden furniture for the yard, and grew beautiful flowers in the garden.
The houses are now aging along with the rest of us. And it’s getting harder and harder to justify expenses since soon no one will be there to live year-round and watch over things. We know decisions will need to be made, and they won’t be easy.
But at the funeral, as we celebrated the long life of one, we remembered once more the gift our great grandmothers had provided for us– a way to stay connected and a treasure to call home.