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family matters
and it should
by michelle von euw
10.10.03
general


Michelle Von Euw's short story STARF*CKER will be featured in LET THE EVOLUTION BEGIN, the first book from Intrepid Publishing.

Sunlight streams through the window panes, dotting the soft grey carpeted floor with bright bursts of color. It’s a perfect New England fall day, and the small white chapel is right out of an image of Americana Protestantism, a beautiful setting for a terrible day.

Family is a strange thing. In childhood, family was a flashpoint, a term that encompassed dozens of aunts and uncles, countless cousins, even their children. My dad was the near the youngest of seven, my mom, the oldest of five, and we were caught in the middle of a cacophonous mix that spanned three generations, a giant, messy family tree with several branches.

The Von Euws – the side that fills mid-sized halls with its yearly gatherings – is the one with the actual, written-down family tree, the carefully traced roots going back to Civil War heroes, back to Ireland and Switzerland, even back to the American Revolution. A fabulous jumble of Celtic last names (ironically, all but the one we still carry) was etched into my mind from an early age, and I try really, really hard to remember the names of all my cousin’s sons and daughters, some of whom are older than I am.

The Callahans are a little different. We’re smaller, and none of us will ever know what came before the grandparents my mother and her siblings never met. While we’ve always been family, it hasn’t been capital “F” family like with my father’s side. We are related, but we are self-sufficient. We do humor, sometimes when we know we shouldn’t. We watched my grandmother, the woman who held us all together, slowly lose her bright, funny, wonderful mind to the slow evil of Alzheimer’s four fast years ago, and while we cried at her funeral, we were all a little bit happy that she didn’t have to live in pain one more day.

That bit of happiness, the tiny amount of relief, was not at all present in the white clapboard New England church last week. Instead, I found myself thinking the one phrase that’s felt ridiculously empty since I was a small girl wanting to stay up past her bed time: “It’s not fair.” Life isn’t fair. I’ve felt it a lot since September 11, 2001; I’ve lived it as a Red Sox fan; and no matter how many times they are uttered, the words never lose their sense of futility. But still – they come to mind, unbidden, unwelcome, but absolutely necessary.

The Callahans have felt like a family to me, a real, honest, wonderful family, two times this year. The first time was at my cousin Kate’s wedding last May. The beautiful backdrop of the Connecticut coastline, against a day brimming with joy and laughter and warmth. After walking his daughter down the aisle, my Uncle Johnny made a heartfelt toast, opting to avoid the usual Callahan jokes and instead, offering a touching tribute to the combined families.

I hold onto to his words, the way he looked so happy, so healthy, so young in his tuxedo, like it’s something tangible, that I can grab onto with both of my hands. Sometimes, a summer can change so much. The next time I saw him, just three months later, the chemotherapy and the surgery had altered his speech patterns, his appearance. But he was still my Uncle Johnny, talking about his children and his one and a half year old grandson, telling me that I had something special in my sports stories.

In the funeral home, I kept looking over at my uncles, his brothers, and seeing him beside them. You become so used to people being there, it’s hard to imagine them when they are not. In the church, we sat together, the Callahans, now getting older, getting married, the small boy who also carries the name John Callahan, and we said goodbye to a man who took up so much space in our family its almost inconceivable to imagine a single Thanksgiving, a single Christmas, a single Easter, a single day without him.

The six, seven, eight child families of my parents’ generations are now a rarity, a thing of the past. People move around a lot more; rarely do children stay in a geographic area to be close to their relatives. Fortunately, family is a flexible term, and we all have friends who feel like family, who play a similar role in our lives, who can fill the spaces that desperately need filling. Because, more than ever, I believe that people need family, and not just in an abstract way. The independence I’ve prided myself on having for so long, I now am reexamining from a different perspective. That pride is now redirected, not just on what I accomplish on my own, but what I have been able to accomplish thanks to the family that has always stood behind me, supporting me, even when I insisted on doing it on my own.

I am a Callahan. I may be clumsily tripping my way into this identity, but at least I’m not doing it alone – the name reaches out and envelops those who won’t ever carry it, my cousin’s new husband, my brother’s girlfriend, my aunt’s fiancé, even the man who stands beside me and holds my hand, the other half in the beginning of our own branch of various family trees.

In the church, I am moved by the touching and sweet tribute Kate gives her father; the funny, poignant way her brother Pat can talk about his dad amazes me to tears. I look around and see Callahans, extensions of Callahans, friends and neighbors, a diverse group of people my uncle has touched along the way, wishing that goodbye didn’t have to come so damn soon, that it was someone else, someone older, someone of the generation beyond his, who’d lived a long and fulfilling life, not one that had so many people who need him.

It’s not fair. But matters of life, and death, rarely are.


ABOUT MICHELLE VON EUW

Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

more about michelle von euw

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COMMENTS

wendy p
10.10.03 @ 8:38a

I should have known I'd need to have the kleenex handy. This is great Michelle.

tracey kelley
10.10.03 @ 10:55a

This is beautiful, honey, for many different reasons. Very few have been able to provide such a clear vision of a complex structure like you have.

I've always wondered where we've gotten our definition of "fair," especially when it comes to matters of the heart, and life.

[edited]

matt morin
10.10.03 @ 11:07a

It's cool to have such a big family on each side. On the Morin side of our family, I have two uncles, one aunt and two cousins. That's it.

And it's great that you know most/all of them and keep in such close contact. That's something I don't think most people have.

sarah ficke
10.10.03 @ 12:18p

Wonderful, fabulous article, Michelle. Now, where did I put those tissues?

marilu von euw
10.12.03 @ 3:41p

So glad you got more than my thighs! And very proud of the depth of your observations. Mom

sandra thompson
10.14.03 @ 7:15p

I had an Uncle Johnny very much like yours, I think. I'm so sorry for your and your family's loss. I hope you told lots of funny Uncle Johnny stories at the wake. I'll tell you right now that you're going to have to endure statements which start out, "If Johnny were here he'd say......" for years and years into the future of Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, birthdays, weddings, funerals, whatever.

louie b
11.3.03 @ 12:12p

thanks shel...

not sure how this comment fits in here but this story had me thinking of how much i miss my Nana who was my best friend


hopefully her and Uncle Johnny have had a chance to meet and chat about the Sox or whatever.. because he sounds like an amazing man



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