My dad’s side of the family–the Frye side–is notoriously bad about getting together as a whole big group. Funerals and weddings, we joke, ha ha, and at each of these events we vow to not let it be so long until we’re all together again.
I grew up in close physical proximity to my aunts, uncles and cousins on this side of the family, but it really hasn’t been until we’ve entered adulthood that we’re gotten to know each other better. (It doesn’t help, I tell myself, that I’m one of the oldest of the cousins and the gap between oldest and youngest is almost two decades.)
We haven’t always been close but we’ve always been family, and this is clearer every time we’re together, no matter the reason.
The man who died was not my grandfather by blood, but he loved my grandmother well. He was her third husband, but I believe she found her soul mate in him. Their 18-plus years together were not nearly enough, but I know she is grateful to have been blessed with the love of a good man.
Her four sons, my dad and his brothers, gathered in rural southern Missouri where their mother lives. One of them lives there, too; the other three drove the 8-plus hours from our hometown to be with her.
They are like the northern Illinois version of Duck Dynasty only cooler because they’re my family.
And I watched as these men, who I’m sure will always be boys to their mom, supported her and their families, sharing and bearing the burden of grief.
A few months ago, I was rolling my maiden name around in my mind because it sounded foreign to me. For 29 years I was known as Lisa Frye, and it was always familiar. I’ve been a Bartelt for only 7 1/2 years, but that name is more comfortable for me. Maybe because my kids share it or because a lot of my writing is under that name now or because I live among people who only know me by that name.
But as I’ve had the chance to spend time with my Frye relatives, I’ve realized that my name may have changed but I’m still a Frye.
And I have too long separated myself from the Frye women, who are either Frye by marriage or are children of a Frye boy and his wife.
There is a rebellious streak that comes alive in me when we are together, a bond that may be bent but has not broken. (My dad remarked that I’m more like my brother when my kids aren’t around because I was a bit sassier than normal, I guess. I think it’s more because I’m accepting my true self and throwing off the expectations of what I think other people think I should be.)
This is a trait of my family. You might not like us but we don’t care what you think. (Okay, maybe we care a little, but it’s not going to change who we are.)
Last fall my husband and kids and I went home for two weddings, back-to-back nights of family celebrations. Until that weekend, I hadn’t seen my extended family much in person, but they all knew about my kids and my life because of Facebook (see, social media is not all bad). Still, it was good to have that in-person interaction. To hear voices and shake hands and hug. Facebook is limited by its two-dimensional-ness. Some things can only be fully experienced by three-dimensional-in-the-flesh life.
And that’s part of the reason I flew out for this funeral. I love my grandma and the last time I saw her in person was more than six years ago. My daughter was a baby then and our son was not in mind yet. We have written to each other and talked on the phone, but like Facebook, those interactions can’t replace the feeling of wrapping your arms around someone you love and giving them a long hug, or the soft press of lips on a wrinkled cheek to convey your love and care.
For some experiences to be really lived, you have to not only see but feel and hear.
We crowded into a couple of pews around my grandma, her boys lined up in the front row like I imagine they might have been once upon time in a church, the rest of us squeezed into a row or two behind. Moments before the service started, as people we didn’t know trickled in to pay their respects and share their condolences (including our waitress from breakfast that morning because it’s that kind of a small town), we joked and laughed about nothing in particular.
Not long after, we shed tears as the song “Wind Beneath My Wings” filled the funeral home and we considered the great loss of love. We held each other and cried and prayed together, and I learned another thing about grief that I had forgotten: sorrow and laughter can share the same space and who better to share it with than family.
I am grateful to have these family ties and though I haven’t seen some of them for years or kept in touch, we are still bonded by our common name, our shared experiences. By more than 30 years of marriages and presence in each other’s lives.
And this, I understand, is not limited to blood relations.
My stepgrandfather had been in the Navy and served in Korea, so his burial was to be in a nearby military cemetery, with military honors. (I’m not sure if that’s the right term.)
It was 18 degrees and windy, unreasonably cold for southern Missouri, even in winter, yet honor guard members and military personnel and a bagpiper converged on the site to pay tribute to a man none of them knew but was considered a brother because of his service.
This is a moment I will never forget. We were huddled and shivering in the cold, and I could hardly believe that strangers would endure this discomfort out of duty. I had seen scenes like this in pictures, widows or mothers being presented with a folded flag that had covered the loved one’s casket, but never had I heard the words.
I can’t recite them for you, but I know their sentiment will never leave me. Even though my grandmother didn’t know her husband when he was a Navy man, she was there at his passing, to receive the honor of him having served his country. I was overcome by the magnitude, humbled to be a witness to such an emotional event.
The playing of Taps, the honor guard salute that made us all jump on the first round of firing, the sound of “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes carrying across the field on a chilly afternoon.
It, too, is a tie that binds. As the wife of a veteran, I feel the smallest connection to others who have served and supported, who have lived through separations, who have died answering the call to protect. It’s a connection that also bends in my day-to-day. We are no longer a military family, so sometimes it’s easy to forget those years. Again, experience in person affirms that connection.
We live too far from family. We hear it again and again. But I suspect that I wouldn’t appreciate them as much if I had never moved away. Maybe I wouldn’t even consider what I had. Or maybe everybody realizes this when they grow up and have kids and get older, and celebrate and grieve together.
All I know is I’m grateful to have been born a Frye, and to be counted among them even when I’m far away. I would love to make a vow that I’ll keep in better touch but I know myself too well. I might not send cards or letters, but my heart will be full of memories and gratitude. And the next time we’re together, I might find that the bonds aren’t as stretched as I thought.
The ties that bind us are like thick rubber bands–they might stretch but eventually they’ll bring us back together.
I grew up with a strong sense of family duty, and I often beat myself up that I can’t be there for them more often. But I will be there when I can, and when it counts.
This is what it means to be bound by love or honor or duty.
Nothing, really, can keep us apart. At least, not for long.