From The New York Times Magazine's Lives column
In the winter, everyone is matted down in thick wool coats, standing in a huddled mass of sniffles and tears. In the summer, the air rings full of sorrow as mourners sigh, their cotton jackets and black dresses blowing in the breeze. To me, it doesn't matter in what season a funeral takes place. I enjoy them just the same.
While my relatives try to collect themselves - some bursting into moments of hysterics - I feel an excitement, a back-to-school restlessness that overrides my grief My unnatural joy for family gatherings stems from the lack thereof Because I come from such a small clan, funerals are my only real chance to make contact with relatives I haven't seen in years.
When I was a child, everyone else's family tree seemed like a strong, robust Oak; mine was more like a weeping willow, broken and hanging low. For me, there were no holiday dinners spent bonding over burned turkey and overcooked stuffing, no long-distance, late-night phone calls, no group vacations, no sharing of conquered milestones with family members. It is the "where do I belong?" and "where do I come from?" that is missing from my life. The longing for a connection to someone or something is a feeling I have never been able to let go of
It's because I am an only child. Actually, I am the only only child. For as many generations as I can retrace, everyone in my family has had several children - except, of course, my parents, who decided to have just me. Although each of my parents has a sibling, neither is especially close to them.
Paying final respects at a relative's home is like finding a secret stash of candy, I can't help but inspect each room, searching through cabinets and dresser drawers, looking through scrapbooks and photo albums filled with old Kodak memories: my grandmother and her sisters sunning at the Plaza Beach Club, my mother's 12th birthday party, my father's Army troop. Snap, a moment is captured. Tangible evidence of time. Proof of existence. Validation.
I snoop in the hopes of finding answers about who they are; I search for something that will connect me to them. I often find myself staring at my relatives - these strangers, this handful of souls, to help define me. I rely on them to tell stories about my grandparents and other family members' from days of long ago - the clock I can't turn back.
I am drawn to the relative who can tell a story, embellish a tale or two about my mother when she was 6 or 7 or call my father by an old nickname he has outgrown, embarrassing him with information privy only to an insider. With these family members there is a level of understanding and forgiveness that can't be recreated with others entering my life now. They are bookmarks in my past as we reminisce about the only thing we have in common.
Conversations pick up exactly where they left off years ago. And as we share stories of the recently deceased, a small puzzle piece slips quietly into place. It is this inner imageless object I have been trying to complete for years. An empty space waiting to be filled with answers and belonging. Like it or not, there are similarities we share - left-handedness, hair and eye color, mannerisms - qualities from an exclusive gene pool. I know I have a connection that can't be erased, ignored or changed. It is through understanding them that I will be better able to understand myself
I have discussed my appetite for funerals with other only children, all of whom come from small families, and they, too, share my unnatural excitement for these ancestral events. As an only child, no matter how hard I try, I still feel an emptiness during the major holidays, a jealousy when I see sisters walking down the street, arms locked, or families laughing together in sync. And there is a loneliness and sense of loss that follows me wherever I go, as if I have forgotten something.
So I wait. I wait for events that will bring my family together. I wait for parties, weddings and birth announcements. But none come. There was a time, however, when my parents were included in all fun functions. But as with most families, gaps, misunderstandings, grudges and age differences have helped break apart and split my family tree. So I wait instead for funerals. Everyone is included; everyone deserves a chance to say goodbye.
Through sorrow and through consoling, I am needed. I am part of something whole. I have made a difference in their lives, even if just for a short while.
When the day is over and people have changed out of black into more comfortable, less formal clothing, I may be forgotten. But the day, the meaningful time we have spent bonding as a family, will always be a part of my life.
Alix Strauss, a freelance writer who lives in New York City, is working on a book of short stories.