The Common Good
November-December 1995

When the Music Stops

by David A. Wade | November-December 1995

Every year, at our family reunion, one more seat of memories and laughter is empty.

Every year, at our family reunion, one more seat of memories and laughter is empty. Another chair is taken away as the dance continues.

In my family, we are in the season of passing-one generation slowly slips away as another emerges. Those of us in the middle, realizing in horror that we are becoming our parents, meet this season with intruding moments of grief thrust against our overwhelming distractions.

Busy with children and career, and approaching midlife with more uncertainty than we thought possible, we find this precisely the wrong time to lose the ones who could provide us the greatest security. The last barriers between us and the raw edges of life crumble. Yet for those of us fortunate enough to have aging parents, this generational rhythm is fitting and natural, if not comfortable or welcome.

As this year's reunion of the Harrison clan approached (my mother was one of 12 children), my brother was ambivalent about attending. Pressures from work, the cost of travel and lodging, and traveling a distance with kids all stacked on the ledger of skipping the "event" this year.

I had only one counterpoint on that same ledger: What if this were the last year Aunt Millie would be there?

My mother's family produced some "great ladies" in the deepest antebellum tradition. Aunt Millie is one, my mother is another. Though raised in coal mining communities during the Depression, these women carry a dignity that defies the loss of husbands, fortunes, children, and dreams.

Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Aunt Millie was the classic American "glamour girl." There was no room that would not brighten upon her arrival. Now with the passing of decades, mixed with the griefs of life and battles with cancer, the beauty has faded. Years of smoking have made the lyrical song of her voice husky. Yet the room still brightens in her presence.

My father always accused my mother of being a "hillbilly," the worst term he could imagine. Yet recently, on the occasion of her oldest son's 50th birthday, my mother entranced a roomful of wealthy, cynical New Yorkers with a charm and elegance they had only read about.

I want my children to know these women. I want them to have memories of them. I want them to remember Aunt Millie, the woman who would greet a young boy on summer mornings, during one of his yearly visits to Ferry Farms with his mom, with, "Hello, sunshine!" Everybody needs to be greeted like that in the morning. It would be worth the world for my children to get the chance to love her. For just as long as they can.

I pray my children remember the sound of my mother singing-that wine-deep resonance shared by other "holler girls" like Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells. That voice carries their heritage. The lonely passion of that voice has fed their father, and so feeds them.

I hold them in the presence of these loved ones-all larger than life yet beginning to fade-for as long as I can, hoping some memory will remain. Live, memory, live. Linger with us long enough for the affection to be passed.

TOUCHING THESE LIVES and connecting these generations is born of a deep impulse within each of us. In generations past, it was the way most of the important information of life was transferred. The elders would impart to the children the secrets of sexuality, spirituality, the clarity that comes with the imminence of death, the wisdom of their regrets, and the transience of their successes.

It is the way the biblical story came to us. Through the sieve of generations, the tales and teachings were passed. The enduring affection for a living God was imparted like light from a candle from one generation to the next until, when finally written down, the passion solidified.

Now, at the end of the most technologically advanced century in known history, community is a difficult reality for many of us. In the year of the Internet, we are more disconnected than ever. Young men haunt the streets of our urban areas with an enormous hole in their souls in the shape of older men. We're losing the personal power of stories, the passing of the history of our lives.

The biblical story can only be understood fully when understood as being our story. It is the story of my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, their parents, and on back. It is my story. I make it my story because I know and love the participants. As a people, a culture, we need to find our stories again. They are locked within our elders. They are ignited by love.

So, did my brother attend? Yes, he and his whole family. The ledger was outweighed by love. We know the musical chairs continue. We will love them until the music stops-and beyond.

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