The last time I saw my relatives was right after my mother’s unexpected death. I was seventeen.
Three uncles, an aunt, and my grandmother had flown in from Minnesota and Colorado to help with funeral arrangements. My uncles and aunt and grandmother sat with me and my pastors around a conference table in the basement level of my church—the same room where my mom had sat and discussed the Bible with other middle-aged churchgoers every Sunday morning. My chair was nearest the door as if I could escape.
Everyone was discussing the arrangements, details such as funeral parlors and costs accrued. I didn’t pay attention as the conversation volleyed around the room without me. But then I heard the word cremation.
“No,” I said firmly—the surest thing I’d said all week. “She didn’t want to be cremated.”
“I talked to her the night before . . .” said Uncle Randy, falteringly. “We talked about how it didn’t matter what happened to our bodies. They’re just that—bodies. Her soul is in heaven.”
“No. She didn’t want to be cremated.”
My last conversation with my mom had not been about funeral arrangements. We had talked about meaningless things, such as how I was enjoying my visit to Alissa’s tiny coastal town. Neither my mom nor I knew she would die in her sleep that night. So no, I did not know what she would have last said to my Uncle Randy.
Yet he had not sat in the living room with her seven years earlier when my mom had received a letter saying the funeral home had cremated my stepdad. Uncle Randy didn’t see her crying, didn’t hear me ask why, didn’t hear her say, “Because we don’t believe in cremating.” It had been a mistake—they hadn’t cremated him—but the scene never left my memory.
I couldn’t explain all that. Instead, I only said, “No. She didn’t want to be cremated.”
My relatives tried to dissuade me, tell me that cremation would be much cheaper. I would not budge. As a teenager, I didn’t understand what happened to deceased bodies or the price difference between burial and burning. But I needed to insist upon something, some choice I could be sure she would make.
Finally, they let the matter rest. In the coming days, we would learn the VA would bury my mom next to her second husband for free, and cremation would never be mentioned again.
But for the time being, we had a memorial service to plan. The date was then set for the next week, on a weekday, likely the church’s first available day. There would be no open casket, but there would also be no urn.
When the date was settled, the relatives looked at each other with discomfort. Uncle Dan spoke for himself, his brother Mike, and his mother.
“We have jobs to get back to,” he said. “We can’t take more time off. And, well, we know where she is. I think we all can agree that this isn’t the important part. We know she’s in heaven.” Only Uncle Randy and his wife, Penny, remained for the memorial service.
His voice broke off—or maybe that’s my wishful thinking. Did he look at me with apologetic eyes? How could I respond?
After that meeting, Claire and Tim, my future foster parents and dear friends of my mom and me, held a party at their house for all the relatives before their flights back to Minnesota.
I vaguely remember snippets of the night. Relatives talking and laughing over appetizers in the dining room. Claire and Tim’s seven-year-old boy and three-year-old girl playing upstairs. Grandma making eye contact at some point, smiling, but unable to speak.
Most of my memories of that night were made from the doorway of the old craftsman home. Early in the night, I stepped out the front door and sat on the hanging wooden swing in the cool September air. I don’t think anyone noticed I was missing. And at the time, I didn’t notice what was missing from my family life.
My extended family had never flown out for birthdays or holidays or simple visits. Neither had my mom nor I—we didn’t have the money. It didn’t occur to me that family should be in the same state, let alone the same room. At seventeen, I didn’t know or have the courage to meet the statement that the family wouldn’t stay for the funeral with something like: That’s not the only important thing. Uncle Mike, Uncle Dan, your only sister is dead. Grandma, your only daughter is gone. But her only daughter is still alive. Tell your sons that they can miss one extra day of work to help their niece grieve.
No, I could not say that. I didn’t know what family should look like.
When my mom died in her sleep, I was staying with my friend Alissa in her southwest Oregon town. I needed to get back to Washington State fast, and I didn’t have my own car, and Alissa’s mom didn’t feel safe driving that far, and the train tickets were sold out, and all in all everything seemed to be shut doors until Alissa’s mom simply paid for a short flight into Seattle. Alissa sat next to me as we flew to Portland, then Seattle.
The night Alissa and I flew into Seattle, no one was waiting at the gate, of course; this was only five years post 9/11, still in the heyday of airport security. Yet as I moved through the crowds to gather luggage, I couldn’t help but search the crowded tile floors for someone, anyone, I knew. I left Alissa behind and walked to the line of carousels, looking through wheeled suitcases and duffle bags, businessmen and young mothers, not knowing who would pick me up.
David saw me first. My youth-group friend’s pace quickened as he passed through the automatic doors to the garage. Before anyone else had seen me, he was standing in front of me, embracing me.
It was the sort of hug I would imagine an older brother would give his younger sister.
“Hannah, my friend,” he said gently, welcome mixed with sorrow.
The moment lasted only as long as it took for the other youth group friends to catch up. Tessa, Meredith, Eleni, Ashley, Joe, Blake? I don’t remember who all came, just that my youth pastor had driven the church shuttle just so they could all welcome me home.
There is an order to funerals, an order no one would tell me until several months later. I was supposed to enter the church sanctuary with Uncle Randy and Penny, the only remaining family in Washington, like a dismal wedding march. My relatives were expected to walk with me, sit next to me. Instead, I sat next to my best friend Alissa. And while my uncle and aunt did attend the service, I took more note of the crowd that was not related.
Tessa, Eleni, and Meredith skipped school. David took time off work. All my youth group friends who didn’t know my mom well but knew me—they came.
Then there was the blur of adults I would never remember. Sunday-morning Bible study friends. Older churchgoers who had frequented the library my mom had faithfully maintained. The church’s head pastor, associate pastors, janitor, and their wives.
They all sat in the pews behind me, shared stories about my mother, left me cards with money for my unknown future, and offered spare rooms to live in.
They all came.
Years after my mother’s funeral but before a pandemic changed everything, my husband Jason and I hosted a weekly Bible study. About eight or so people crowded in our small living room, sitting on mismatched kitchen chairs, our decades-old hand-me-down couches, and even the giant silver exercise ball. We started at five-thirty and shared a homemade meal.
As a child, I dreamed of living in a large family. I wondered what dinner would be like when your table was long enough for the rolls to be passed along multiple pairs of hands. I envied the kids who could complain about sharing toys, who felt the need to fight for parents’ attention, who were never in a house alone for hours each day.
Or even those who simply lived near cousins and drove a few hours to celebrate holidays with kin.
A part of me still wishes my relatives were closer. I still long for that missing connection. I still wonder if maybe someday I’ll take my son and my husband back to the Midwest and introduce them to the kin they’ve never known. We’ll go to Bridgeman’s Ice Cream Parlor, see Lake Superior, and feed the squirrels outside my grandparents’ home.
Someday my family may expand to include all those related by blood.
However, in the moments when I stirred a pot of soup twelve servings large, when I frosted homemade cinnamon rolls to celebrate someone’s birthday, when we made inside jokes in a Facebook message thread, when Jason and I immediately knew whom to text when we sat in a hospital waiting room, and when my friend David held me in an airport terminal—in those times, I have wondered if this might be the family I need.
Cover image by Ross Parmly.