When we’d visit my Dad’s family in Dayton, Ohio the tiny house where my grandparents lived was always filled with people. My Dad had 12 siblings growing up and by the time we came along they were all married and most had children. I had so many cousins on my Dad’s side that I did not even know all of their names and the ones I did know I usually got wrong. The visits to Dayton were a flurry of activity in that house on Briarcliff lane. My family had lived in the house next door to my grandparents for a number of years before we moved 90 miles south to Cincinnati so it was always a little strange to come and visit and see strangers wandering around “our” yard. Still, we loved to visit, to meet up with cousins we rarely saw, to explore the field behind my grandmother’s house and see where she kept bees or where she grew green beans she’d can and serve to us for dinner that afternoon. If we were brave we’d find a way into the greenhouse just off the patio or sneak into jalopy one of my uncles kept in the garage there.
I would often confuse the names of my Dad’s sisters and brothers, forgetting which were related by marriage and which by blood except for Uncle Kenny. It was easy to see that my Dad and Kenny were brothers. They were close in age and looked alike to me as a kid. Uncle Kenny was famous to my friends because I was able to tell them that I had an uncle named “Ken” and with a last name like “Doll” that’s something. I liked my Uncle Kenny because he was kind. When I think back on those years and those visits this is what strikes me. He was kind. He always seemed to be jovial, happy-go-lucky, easy-going. When I think of him I always remember him smiling.
I wonder if that is why the news of his battle with Alzheimer’s was so hard for me to hear. Having been through that struggle with my husband’s father a few years ago, I remember all too well how it hollows a person out, how it robs them of some essential pieces of their core personality. I remember the physical struggles Dave’s dad encountered but I remember more the emotional roller coaster and so, when I would see updates on Uncle Kenny’s condition it always hit me in a soft spot. My Dad had already lost 2 older siblings when Kenny was diagnosed so my Dad took the news of my uncle’s illness hard.
My Uncle Kenny passed away this week after a short stay in hospice. It felt too fast to me but then, I’m far away. I’m out of touch with the extended family (save for Facebook) being in Chicago with a family of my own. It’s been a long time since I saw my Dad’s family in person, a long time since we ran in the fields behind my grandmother’s house, since we rummaged around in her basement finding treasures, since we sat crammed around that table in their tiny house and listened to the stories Uncle Kenny would tell with that wide smile he wore.
It took a few minutes after I got word that my uncle had died to put things together. In some ways my life won’t change all that much. I won’t feel that loss as closely as my family who still live close to everyone there. Still, I found as I sat at my computer looking at old photos the family had posted that I was in tears, feeling that loss deep in me anyway.
Perhaps grief is the reminder of those past days, those absences we had not noticed before. Perhaps grief is what shakes up old memories so that we can hold them in our hands again, fingers wiping away the dust we’ve allowed to form on the faces in the photos, the moments we’d pushed aside, the kindnesses we’d forgotten.
Memory eternal, Uncle Kenny. You will be missed.