Wednesday, April 27, 2011

21 Guns and One Step Closer

I attended the funeral of my Grandfather today.  Raymond V. Albain.  A carpenter, an artist really.  A WWII veteran, a man who liberated concentration camps and saw the horrible realities of war that no one talks about, that he wouldn't even talk about with us- his family.  Today though, I saw him for the first time as a man with a story, and not just a superficial family figure in my life.

I want to preface this post by saying this isn't a plea for sympathy.  Today wasn't a loss, rather, a gain.  I gained a whole new sense of perspective and love for my family.  I contemplated writing about this at all, because I didn't want it to turn into an emo/angsty post about death and life and sorrow, and I don't want to betray the privacy of my family.   I can't help myself from sharing today's journey, though,  because I realized so many things about the meaning of what we've come from, and the reality of the limited perspective that we are living our days through.

Driving from the airport to Monroe, MI was a montage of flashbacks.  I realized how strong my childhood memories were of visiting my grandparents.  I remembered the curves of the roads.  The huge bump over the train tracks that always gave me a thrill as a kid... a "rollercoaster", I used to say.  I remember how proud I used to be when we would turn onto Albain Road... because that was our road.  My family had a road named after them, and that had to mean something.

Arriving at my Grandparent's house I realized I hadn't been there in probably 2-3 years.  I couldn't help but feel some severe guilt over that.  Walking in, nothing had changed.  Photos covered the walls.  My parents wedding photo.  My aunts, cousins, my family... whom I realized today I take for granted, which needs to change.  My grandparents had always felt like somewhat distant figures in my life.  We saw them as frequently as we could, and we'd get a card or check on birthdays and holidays.  They weren't people who showered emotion and affection on us in the way that we so often translate love to be.  I became aware today how I received that to mean a lack of caring.  Yet, I was struck today with the photos that covered their house.  Those photos have always been there, and in the past I had taken them at face value.  That was their expression of love, though.  How clearly I came to see today that of course these people cared... they had covered their house in photos of the family they had made.  A testament of the life they had created.

My Grandfather had a detached garage and "shop" in their backyard.  When I was young I remember him spending most of his time out there; fiddling with wood, making little projects and creations.  He had become known for his artistry in woodworking.  I hadn't stepped foot into that garage in well over 10 years.  Walking in the first thing I saw was the small, blue tractor that my Grandfather used to let us ride around the yard.  My first taste of driving, something that I would come to love so much and it was present even in my youth.  I laughed recalling the day that he let me move from "turtle" speed to "rabbit" speed.  That difference of 2 MPH to 4MPH felt like such huge freedom and responsibility.

His "shop" was timeless... preserved exactly as it had been all the years that I remember him moving around in there.  He was funny, I realized.  He had little joke creations, funny signs, and even a pin-up calender.  In the midst of all the rick-rack remnants of his life and work was something I'd never seen.  On the wall, in plain view where he would have looked at it ever day, was a handwritten list of each of us and our birthdays.  There I was.  Julia- Dec 4th, 1986.  I had been something to him.  He had looked at my name every day, his Granddaughter.  I don't know if I can recall him ever saying "I Love You" to me, but all those unspoken words were redeemed in seeing my name on that list in his sacred space.

As the day and the ceremonies wore on, the pieces of his life and story came together clearer and clearer.    I saw pictures of his parents, my Great-Grandparents... and they were stunning.  My Great-Grandmother Sadie Bissonett was absolutely gorgeous.  Simply beautiful, truly.  I stared at this photo of a captivating and mysterious woman and couldn't believe that this woman was my family... I was a part of her.

I watched my Grandmother have a tender moment over her husband, saying her goodbyes.  Possibly the only tender moment I'd ever watched between them.  I realized that my understanding of love, and what people share, is limited and shallow.  I have no idea what these two people shared.  64 years of marriage is something miraculous, to say the least.  I may have never seen them kiss, but I have no idea what was truly moving between them.  My idea of love is limited and superficial.  My perspective of when and how much people care for me is limited to my selfish understanding of what I think I should be receiving.  I could have gained so much more joy from so many situations if I had been open to the idea that people love me, even when they don't express it in the ways I expect or understand.

In honor of my Grandfather's service in WWII there was a military greeting and presence at the graveyard.  I experienced a 21 Gun Salute and serenading Taps to send him off.  It gave me chills, to say the least.  This man had been a great man.  People around the town put their flags at half-mast for him.  Veterans showed up to honor him.  A flag was folded and empty casings gathered to be left with us, his family.  And in that, I saw how family... people... they are meant to be our top priority.

Just as quickly as I arrived, I had to leave again.  And I questioned the whole car ride back to the airport whether I was lining up my priorities right.  Why had I not been to see my grandparents for a couple years?  Why was my life situated in a way that forced me to rush out of funerals and fling quick goodbyes at the people who literally share my blood?

In the past few hours I've developed this obsession with the idea of tracing my family lineage, on both sides.  Of learning the stories of the people that are my flesh and blood.  I talk so often about moving forward, but perhaps part of that is digging into the past.  I crave forward motion and journeying and adventure... but it became more evident than ever today that the adventures and journeys will only mean something when they are entrenched in the people you love and who love you.   Family. Friends. People.  These should be the priorities.  More important than anything else.  Shape your life around that, rather than vice versa.  I almost didn't go to Michigan today.  I almost said that it was too stressful, I was too busy, the timing was just bad.  I would have missed some life-changing moments if I had not gone.

So yes, in this "journey" toward "home" I feel one giant leap closer today.  I was given a hint of how embedded I am in an intricate story of family lines, family love, and so many things that I have yet to know or understand.

It struck me on the plane ride back to Chicago that, in reference to my last post, perhaps I had been my Grandfather's dream.  While he faced darker things serving our country, perhaps he had dreamed of a home and children and, one day, grandchildren.  And I was one of them.  The family that gathered today was his dream.

I may have been one of his dreams.  And their are people yet to be born, and yet to be encountered that are my dreams.  And I feel so much closer to understanding what this sense of "home" might mean.


  1. I'm not usually one to comment because, and this time will be no exception, words tend to escape me when I want them the most.
    I just wanted to say that I completely relate to what you're saying here. My Grandad died not all that long ago, he too was a WWII vet and I didn't know him like I should have. I loved him and I know he loved me, but acting on it didn't occur to me until it was too late.
    I'm glad you found a sort of peace in visiting his home and I hope your search through your lineage brings you even closer to the home you seek.

  2. Another wonderfully open and honest blog post. Thanks for sharing Julia. I have always had a really close relationship with my granddad. He practically raised me as a child and we bonded in a way that has forever changed our relationship. That being said; the last several years my newly forming ‘adult’ life has left me with little time and energy to keep this relationship as strong as I would like. Phone calls have become less frequent and visits further and further a part. Last year my granddad had several large health scares that almost took him from us. Like you, it made me question all my priorities and reevaluate what exactly I was spending my time on. I’d like to be able to say that this taste of reality made me change my ways and begin to focus on family again, and it did, for a while. But as it does, real life started to settle in again and communication got less and less. I think that this ability to move forward while still being grounded to your past is a skill that takes time to establish. Maybe it’s what we call maturing. All I know is that cherishing your family is one of the most important things we can do while we’re here on this earth. So if you don’t mind, I’m off now to make some important phone calls ;)

    Love to you and all of yours

  3. A fellow lover of moving forward, I have these very thoughts often. You just can't grow and bloom and reach forward without deepening your roots. You can't have good perspective without stepping beyond yourself to view life in another's light. Such wonderful, complex and life-changing concepts to enhance a life.... I hope I never forget it.

    I am so very glad you came. I am so thankful to have been a part of that 21 Gun Salute. I am still awaiting the translation from you, but I am patient. ;o)

    Should you decide to dig in and trace the lineage, I'll team up with you. Hugs.

  4. Enjoyed your post (found you through Michele). My grandfather died almost 7 years ago and I can identify with your emotions and thoughts in this post. I've been struggling personally with the idea of family and relationships and really focusing on what is important. There are so many things that remind me of him - sometimes simple things like the dishes in their house, the funny faces he would make, the nickname he had for me. Hold onto those things and look back at that past as you said you wanted to and I believe you will find the legacy you are looking for. Take care!

  5. My dearest Julia, you always seem to read my mind when it comes to your blog entries. Last Sunday and Monday were four years since my dad and grandfather passed away. And remembering my dad's death more than my grandpa's still captures my attention. I didn't attend my grandpa's funeral. I was too shocked trying to handle the fact that my dad wasn't with us anymore. It's a funny story because while at my dad's funeral my grandpa was being taken to the hospital(I live right across the street of the funeral parlor). I think that my mind was trying to not see what was happening right in front of me: the fact of seeing my grandpa being carried out of my house in a trolley while I mourned my dad. I found out right after my dad's burial that there wasn't much hope for my grandpa. And that night he passed away. He loved us his way, and even though those last years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's he wasn't the same man, he was able to find those moments to share with us. I sometimes dream about him, and maybe we never talked that much I loved him and still remember him every time that I hear a piano playing in the distance or open my window and remember how he used to take walks in our garden.
    So thank you for sharing this, you made me remember lots of things myself. Good luck on your tracing of the lineage!

    Much love!