When I was young I lived close to my very large extended family. I was the first born grandchild for both sets of grandparents, and with 14 aunts and uncles (not including the spouses of those who were married at the time) I was well and truly loved. I have a cousin 2 months younger than me, and then every year or so another cousin or sibling appeared, in a slow trickle for the first few years. Our aunts and uncles were young, knew us and were part of our life. They attended birthday celebrations, Christmas gatherings, and family camping trips. My mother’s siblings were friends with my father’s siblings. Then more cousins came along, we moved overseas and on our visits home many of the aunts and uncles would comment that there were so many cousins that they lost track of them and who was who. Of course that wasn’t true, but we were certainly a large family.
I haven’t lived ‘at home’ in my country of birth, for 35 years. But family is family. Always there, a given. The names all run together so you always include the aunt and the uncle as if they are one entity. During the course of organising a trip home last year for a large family gathering a family Facebook group was set up. We started ‘following’ each other. We have had a small window into each other’s lives – that very superficial glimpse that social media brings, but more than we have had for years.
Last week we had word that one of my aunts, one half of one of those uncle and aunt entities, was very sick. We knew that she had been diagnosed with cancer weeks earlier and had updates passed by email to the ‘brothers and sisters’ who then passed the news on to us, the next generation. Over the course of a day or two it became clear that she was in fact very sick and within hours she was gone.
I have been reflecting on family ever since. I am so lucky that I have had this large blanket of family there in the background for all my life, that I have reconnected with so many through social media at least. And I am at a loss to imagine my uncle without his other half – the other piece of his puzzle, the other part of his name. Today would have been their 41st wedding anniversary. Tomorrow, in the church that they were married in, our family will gather to say goodbye and celebrate her life. She is part of my childhood memories – a teenager on the beach when I was a toddler (yes that is me on the beach and she is the gorgeous young woman in the background with her then boyfriend), the glamorous aunt who always worked in an office when so many of our aunts and mothers didn’t work at all, the one who always had time to listen at family gatherings, who always remembered and understood what we were doing with our careers. Maybe it is time to stop taking the background blanket of family for granted and understand their place in my life a bit more, appreciating how they have contributed to the person I am today while I can still discuss it with them now, and not wait until they are gone to scramble for those precious memories, and understand how they fit together.
However, for today, I will hold my little people close, love them fiercely and tell them stories about their great-aunt Dianne, and how she fits into the jigsaw that is their family.
Vale Dianne Rose van Gessel. You are loved and will be missed.