Last Friday, July 8th, was Appreciative Grandkids Day. Don’t be concerned if you missed it. Thankfully, it wasn’t another greeting card concocted holiday. Actually, we made it up. It also happens to be the date of my parents wedding anniversary. It would have been their 44th. As soon as the warm weather creeps into Michigan, my mother is reminded of the arrival of a season and it isn’t summer. If it had a name it would be “miss-you-terribly-all-of-July-and-just-when-I’m-feeling-ok-it’s-time-for-our-35+-year-tradition-of-vacation-Up-North-to-Traverse-City-the-one-you-won’t-be-at-….again.” Heavy and exhausting. It’s a layer cake of warm filling memories with some bitter sauce on the side.
The same time last year I was on my way back from the eastern seaboard. While sitting shotgun in an over packed mini van, driving through the hills of Pennsylvania, I talked to my mother on the phone. It certainly would have helped to be there in person, to share hugs and sit down with a glass of wine and get through it, as we say, though it was still comforting to connect over wireless connections. Her view while the phone was pressed to her ear, a house full of memories. My view, a bucolic countryside scene whose landmarks where unfamiliar and did not evoke anything more sour to the retching tightness in my belly as I talked with my mom on the anniversary of my father’s death, July 10th.
This year, I took a cue from the Wisdom Keepers. As a passport holding traveler in the world of aging and dementia I have been gifted with more than a few gems for living well on the road of life. There are two things that all resilient families espouse that set them apart from the rest. Two ways of being that support families in their ability to cope with change, any change. As I have watched with awe and admiration for over 15 years, these unique families and their ways of interacting stand out clearly now: Ritual and Wonder. These two elements when nurtured, celebrated, sought out and cultivated within a family system create a powerful loving flow of influence and care for the benefit all of its members. It is really something to behold in the face of dementia. Observing it in action, and participating in this web of care at work has left an indelible impression on my worldview and perception. If families, in the midst of the potential collapse of all we cognitively hold dear in our culture, can pull together and manifest new meaning and create an entirely new dimension for engagement and communication, so can all of us. How wonderful if we have a chance to practice and enjoy this way of being WITHOUT having to be in crisis or in the midst of catastrophic change.
So, with two bundles of energy harnessed in pigtails, some flowers, chocolate and a bottle of wine, we headed north last weekend. In the car, my eldest daughter and I renamed the day, “Appreciative Grandkids Day,” as a compliment to the memory of two young twenty-some-things who, in 1967, married on a hot day in July. My daughter understood, for the first time, if it hadn’t been for their relationship, I wouldn’t be here, and so, her life would not exist either. Although she did wonder about where else her soul may have landed. On the drive, I carefully explained the reason for the day to each child and a chance to talk about and reflect on what it means to be thankful and to honor the living and our ancestors.
We do not have many cultural traditions for such things, unless you take a page from the pagans, eastern religions, native cultures or use Judeo-Christian holidays as an opportunity to connect to personal family history. The hodge-podge of all these things added to our own instincts is enough. Anything that resonates within your heart and in the context of your family is the best guide. For us, the dual holiday was like opening up the curtains in a room that was ready for more light. Having the children involved was like raising the windows by inviting fresh air into a space that had become isolated in darkness.
“Appreciative Grandkids Day” wasn’t formal, in fact it was very casual, unbridled by expectation and the need to do anything other than just be together. It involved pizza, a movie and even a bit of tai chi the morning after. Everything was unplanned, just open. To any onlooker, it was normal, nothing special. For my mother and I, we felt the buoyancy and rested comfortably above the weight of the weekend rather than under its sweaty thumb like years past. Maybe the lightness arrived partly on its own, a gift of time. Perhaps it was the gift of another friend who unexpectedly called my mom earlier in the day and created new perspective on grief in which she realized how far she had come, emotionally, spiritually and mentally in four years time. Either way, “AGkD” was a hit. And like any ritual grounded in love, gratitude and good humor, it will take on new meaning as we refer to it over the years. This time next year, we will have something to look forward to as we gather in honor of our family.