Becoming Matriarch


Image courtesy of The Graphics Fairy

Some rites of passage involve celebration and ceremony to welcome new phases of life, new roles and positions. They are planned, welcomed.

Others happen unbidden and unwanted. Quietly, they slip into a day with no warning to confer a change of status.

My brother called Wednesday morning with the news that the last of our mother’s cousins had passed to the next world. She was 92, and by some act of grace her sons were with her, not an easy thing in these pandemic days. Mom was an only child, and her cousins played the role of aunts and uncles for us.

A sigh. A bit of chocolate. I hadn’t really been in touch with them in ages, so the sense of loss was palpable, but not overwhelming. She had cared for the three of us in the chaotic days after my mother’s unexpected death, drifted off for a while, then returned to support us along the path of grief after our dad’s passage.

Go about the evening and next day when my brother called again. He’d been digging on line for information on family members for his genealogy project. Dad’s last cousin, the one who’d been like an aunt to us (Dad’s younger brother lived in Washington and to the best of our knowledge didn’t have children) had died a few years ago. Somewhere in her late 80s, maybe early 90s.

A chill passed through as a weight came onto my shoulders. A weight as if someone had dropped a cape onto them.

In a heartbeat, the three of us became That Generation. The elders. The matriarchs and the patriarch, keepers of wisdom, storehouses of memories, clan leaders.

And in that same heartbeat came the realization that I will likely be the last one standing of the three of us. My sister is 15 years older than me and my brother 10 years older than me. Both are in pretty good shape, and may they be so for a long time.

Odds remain that I will be the last one who holds memories of my mother seated at the piano playing Debussy; my father cooking dinner; coffee with Grandma at her grey Formica kitchen table; Gram cutting the crust off of toast for fussy eaters. Remembering the creaks, the scents of their houses. Looking out of Gram’s windows to see the  velvety green Berkshire mountains seemingly close enough to touch. The traffic on the major street that passed in front of Grandma’s porch.

Oakley went for a long walk around the lot as I processed that. He didn’t want to, but if I have to take on this unexpected role, he had to take me for a walk.

Deep breath, replenish with the green scents of the first grasses and clovers. Now what do I do? The answers shaped themselves into two sets of questions, one for the care of my direct descendents and their future families; the other for the care of the wider world.

The responses to those included keeping myself in optimal health; getting my affairs in order; making sure my journaling includes family and wider world history; and continuing to do what I can from the soybean field to fight against hunger, inequality, and environmental damage.

I felt the invisible mantle shift. Suddenly, it didn’t feel as heavy.



The Mortality Dialogues

The last leaves cling to the trees, defiantly bright as the wind tries to strip them from the branches and pile them on the ground in a tapestry of yellows, oranges, and crimson. Despite a couple of chilly days, 60-plus highs reprieve us from the inevitable crash of the temps as the month winds down. This will not last forever, I know.

Nothing does. A couple of weeks ago on a dark windy day, my stylist trimmed the last of my autumn-toned hair ends. I colored my hair through my forties, various shades of blonde, a lighter brunette, even red once. As the journey into my fifties launched, the cost in time, upkeep, and money to have a younger woman’s hair became questionable. When she was done, the final three inches of what had turned brassy and dried lay on the floor around the chair with a few snippets of the original dark brown, now with streaks of stars running through it.

I felt better. I looked younger, too, ironically,  without the silly brassy puff that sat on my head when I pulled my hair up and back with a clip. Took myself out for a latte to celebrate.

As I stood in the windy parking lot with cup in hand, I had an overwhelming urge to call a close friend. Not unexpected, as are season changes, but still a surprise, was the news that her father had passed the night before. He’d been in his last decline for the past six months. We chatted; I extended condolences while I watched the clouds cross the sky.

The clouds parted last weekend. Hubby came home to tend to business related to retirement. Get signed up for our own health care insurance. Get finances in order. We discussed everything calmly, no real reason to get upset. Made decisions, budgeting, when to sign up for this benefit, that investment, structuring this withdrawal. And then he said it.

“You’re probably going to outlive me by a long time.”

I got a little cold.

He, being a man of science and math, had a point with the calculation of the odds. His mom was in her early 80’s, but spent the last years in poor health. His father was only 40, and his end came from a head injury. His grandma was in her 70’s.

My family, however, was a different story. Both my parents smoked two packs a day. The last thing I saw my mom do the day she died was puff away on a cigarette. My dad smoked until his first heart attack and successfully quit, but did a lot of damage to himself with the diabetes and the drinking. Neither made it to 70. Three out of my four grandparents made it into their eighties and way beyond. Grandpa G. was a noncompliant diabetic and passed in his 50’s. Gram G. was 80-something, and the leukemia couldn’t be helped. Grandpa L. was 96. Pneumonia. He was getting pretty fuzzy at the end. Grandma L. was 98. I really believe that she’d still be here if she hadn’t broken her hip. Until her last week on this side, she was was as sharp as a tack and still slicing and dicing politics with the best of them when she wasn’t watching boxing of professional wrestling. (For the skill and expertise, you know. Yes, Grandma, I really would love to buy the Mackinac Bridge from you.)

My meditation teacher once said that impermanence is a gift. Watching the leaves fall is bittersweet, but the new ones will come in next April. It saddens me that my friend’s father made his passage, but my God, he had cancer and midstage Alzheimer’s. And while this week passes in a blizzard of paperwork and revamping budgets and the chill of remembering that we will not be here forever, we have the relief that Hubby has taken back his soul and made room for his true passion of woodwork.

We have another retirement-related meeting tomorrow. While we don’t know quite what’s in front of us, we can see a little further down the road. It’s still long, but we know and from some orientations can see that there’s an end.