“How much do you like him?” Uncle Ray asks, flicking his head in the direction of the kitchen, where Joshua is.
Josh had only met this part of my family a few days before, after we had hopped an overnight bus to Pittsburgh just in time for me to hold my unconscious grandmother’s hand one more time before she died. (We all called her Sito, Arabic for grandmother.) A family wedding last summer had occasioned Josh becoming lightly acquainted with most of my mom’s side of the family, but now Sito’s sudden death from pneumonia was going to be a crash course in my dad’s family for him.
As we all sat, exhausted, after a full day of viewing at the funeral home, people’s dress clothes untucked and askew, my uncle realized that we were short a pallbearer to carry Sito in her powder blue casket up the hill to the gravesite at the cemetery in the morning. My brother, Colin, and our first cousins, Taylor and Jared, were lined up, of course, but their sister, Caity, and I would be in heels and it was expected to snow. Besides, my grandmother, bless her, was not a slight woman. Of her two sons, my dad had had a stroke not even a month before, and Uncle Ray’s knees and back could barely support him, let alone my zaftig Sito and her handsome casket. Her godson, Johnny, was enlisted to help, as was a longtime friend of the family. But this made only 5 pallbearers, not the necessary 6.
I knew what Uncle Ray was thinking about 20 minutes before he asked it. As he wrote out the names of the 5 pallbearers on a little card for the funeral home, I saw his eyes dart to Joshua. My family needed an able-bodied young man, and conveniently I’d gone ahead and brought one home from New York with me. But first, a test:
“How much do you like him?”
“Um, a lot?” I answer, wondering if that is enough.
Apparently, it is.
“Josh!” Uncle Ray calls instantly. “Wanna be a pallbearer?”
Josh steps out from the kitchen. My whole family is waiting to hear whether or not this essential stranger to them will carry our dead loved one− whom he met only once− up a hill through the snow with 5 other people who are essentially strangers to him…for me. It’s a little weird.
“Sure,” Josh says, like he’s been asked to pass the salt. And then he disappears back into the kitchen.
There are pictures of me with my ex-boyfriend at weddings and funerals for both his family and mine. There is a crowded family reunion photograph of my dad’s family with my ex by my side. A seemingly endless series of photographs taken one Christmas of all the “grandkids” in his family included — sweetly but uncomfortably — me.
When you date someone for years without getting engaged or married, as is becoming more common, and when the families of the people you date are relatively normal and kind and functional, there appears a wiggly line in the sand as far as how much a part of the family you are. And nothing, in my opinion, illustrates that conundrum as well taking family photos. And my most recent ex-boyfriend’s family did a lot of those.
I recall many instances of, “Should I be in this picture? You’re sure? Why don’t I just take it instead?” that always ended with me getting bodily shoved into the shot by his cousins or aunts. Of course, I was touched. But I also couldn’t help but think, “Maybe you want to take one without me…” If we broke up — which we did after 3 years — I didn’t want to be the fly in the ointment of the otherwise-best family Christmas photo that his parents would look at regretfully but never be able to display.
We had only been dating for a few months when his grandfather died. I was thrust cold into the middle of a very big, very grief stricken, very emotive Italian family. Then, 11 weeks later, his grandmother died, and the process began again, only now with a bitterer attitude toward the perceived cosmic cruelty of the situation. It was a stressful and despondent time for my then-boyfriend, but in a strange way I was grateful for the opportunity to support him, and pleased that his family seemed to like and accept me in spite of — or perhaps because of — entering their family at a point of emotional turmoil. I spent several unbroken days with them, even sleeping in the same bed as some of his female relatives. I held unfamiliar babies. I hugged a lot of people I didn’t know.
In photographs as well as memories, I am a part of that family losing its matriarch and patriarch. I am permanently etched into the fabric of my ex’s experience of the deaths of his grandparents, just as he is also a part of how I felt about my mom’s parents dying. The difference is that my family didn’t take any pictures. There’s no physical reminder, no “proof” that my ex was a part of the experience, even as I remember him being.
I feel funny about being a permanent part of a story that I no longer participate in, and I imagine maybe others might feel similarly post-breakup. In 15 years, someone is going to look at my family reunion photo and point to the guy next to me and go, “Who is that?” and the answer will be, “I don’t know.” instead of, “Oh, an in-law.”
But what’s the alternative? To exclude the significant other from photos until somebody puts a ring on somebody else’s something? Seems a little harsh, and that’s not something a lot of families are willing to do or even express discomfort over when their son or daughter brings home somebody new.
(Side note: My mom’s mother, my Nanny, was not one of those people. As my ex-boyfriend and I left the house one day, I hugged her goodbye and she said, “Bye, sweetie. I love you.” When my boyfriend hugged her, she said, “Bye. I don’t love you yet. Maybe someday.” Nanny Robinson: Serving Up Truth from 1929-2011.)
Obviously, I understand the desire to be welcoming and inclusive, but does it make anybody else just a little bit squeamish to realize that, as we move through our 20s, we’re going to be experiencing a lot of life-changing, important, emotional things with boyfriends and girlfriends who are potentially not as permanent? 15-20 years ago, most of us would have already been married. The photographic records of our lives used to be neater, perhaps.
Maybe it’s just my personal discomfort with inconsistency. I want everything in my past to be clean and even, congruous with my present and aligned with my future. Even looking through 7 years of old Facebook profile pictures and seeing 3 different long-term boyfriends makes me feel unbalanced. The relationship narrative has broken and restarted, broken and restarted, but how I think of and relate to my life is a continuous ribbon of experience and memory. Shedding and acquiring new life partners makes it more messy and complicated than I want it to be on paper.
And it’s not even that I regret the past and wish to erase it; I just have a Platonian yearning for continuity. But of course, that’s just my futile battle against reality. I can want a tidy personal history that reads beautifully from the pages of a photo album, but I’m not going to get it. My ex-boyfriend was there when my mom’s parents died, and Josh was here for my Sito.
“The plan is, that if one person falls, everybody lets go and we just let her slide down the hill,” my cousin Taylor explains on the morning of the funeral, a proud grin on his face.
My cousins and brother and I laugh, tears springing simultaneously. Then I realize how horrifically macabre laughing at the idea of my grandmother bobsledding in her casket must seem to Joshua.
“She always talked about going snow tubing,” I explain to him quickly before he thinks we’re terrible grandchildren. “Every year, she’d say she was gonna go, and every year we told her she was crazy. She never believed us when we said she couldn’t. She always thought it looked so fun.”
“One last shot!” Taylor beams, and I know that Sito wouldn’t be able to stop giggling with delight at the sight of him. He’s wearing one of her prized possessions: a $10,000 mink coat, whose claim to fame was being used as an improvised sled when my Sito once found herself trapped at the top of her treacherously steep driveway after an ice storm. Amazing, only the sleeves are a little short on him. With his linebacker-build, pierced ears, and well-cut suit, Taylor looks like a conservative pimp or misguided rapper.
“I was gonna wear the hat,” he says, referring to her matching mink topper, “but I thought that might be tacky.” He says this with no irony, and I treasure it.
I pin on Joshua’s boutonniere− a white carnation− which marks him as a pallbearer. I am so overwhelmingly grateful, especially because he acts like this is a matter of course. It needs to be done, so he’ll do it. (He’s good with things like that at all levels. If the kitchen sink gets clogged, he unhesitatingly sticks his hand down through the murky water to pull out whatever sludgy once-food mystery is blocking the drain. I am physically incapable of doing this because it’s “too icky”. That’s modern chivalry, people.) My gratitude notwithstanding, I feel that same old wiggle of unease in the back of my mind. This is way bigger than pictures ’round the Christmas tree. My boyfriend is one of my grandmother’s pallbearers. Is this ok? Should he be doing this? Is some line being crossed? He’s not family− it was just a fact. And this…this is forever.
Maybe I’m making too much out of it, but situations like this just stress me out because they force me, by negation, to think about the possibility of Josh one day not being there to carry the casket. And then won’t it be strange when I look back on my grandmother’s funeral and that’s who was there? Basically, it sends me into a panicky spiral of thinking about my relationship’s future and potential and whether or not I will look back on the important things I did with Joshua and regret that those things were not done with the person I will eventually end up with for(hopefully)ever who very well may be Joshua but who also may not be which is impossible to know at this point in my life because I can’t make decisions like that even if I wanted to which I don’t right now but it’s just nice to have options and what are we doing if we aren’t moving forward and what does forward really mean you know?!?!
Ridiculous, right? Amazingly, while my brain is having the above nuclear meltdown, I remain outwardly calm. My neuroses pile on top of themselves until they reach a fever pitch. This is what I do to myself. This is what happens when you can’t live in the now.
But what could be done? I wasn’t going to pull the priest aside before the service and ask him to marry us quickly so that I would feel less strange about it. And it’s not that I don’t want Josh to do it− because I do! I want him to be a part of my family. I want him to be accepted and cared for. I want him to feel comfortable and at home. But it’s as if my brother just asked him to be his best man or something. Like technically, it’s fine. That’s cool. That’s allowed. But is that really who should be filling that honorary position?
Ultimately and suddenly, all of these things take a backseat to the fact that I have lost one of the most important people in my life. The service is starting. It’s nice. I give the eulogy. It’s starting to sink in for me, for everyone, that this is goodbye, that tomorrow everything will be over and we will no longer have the excuse of viewings and funerals and planning meals to distract us from the truth of her absence. Until now, we could allow ourselves to be pulled this way and that, to busy ourselves with explaining her illness and decline to disbelieving relatives and stunned family friends, with making introductions and recounting memories with visitors, and with worrying about things like whether it is proper for my boyfriend to be a pallbearer. Because that means we aren’t thinking about never getting another “annoying” phone call from her, never again walking into her house and smelling lamb kebobs, never being pulled in for another smothering hug and kiss on the head, never being ordered to fetch her enormous purse from beside her bed so that she could take her pills or find a coupon or give you “ice cream money”. We — I — have used up all the distractions, and now her death is real and permanent.
We walk outside after the service and into a blizzard. Literally, a blizzard. Several inches of snow have fallen in just the time we’ve been inside.
“Tell Josh we brought cleats,” Taylor says.
The procession crawls to the cemetery, fortunately located just up the road. The brave few left huddle around the hearse as the priest says the last few prayers. I miss most of it; I’m standing by Joshua, who is sitting half-in, half-out of my brother’s car, putting on the cleats my cousins brought for him over his dress socks.
It’s striking how much he seems a to be part of my family’s palette — dark hair, dark eyes, tall, broad-shouldered — and indeed, many people at the viewings assumed he was some cousin or other, though he’s Hungarian, not Syrian like us. (Eastern European and Mediterranean: after a few generations of dilution, it all starts to look plausibly the same.) Lined up with my brother and cousins, lifting the casket, he blends right in with his dark peacoat. The snow is so thick and driving that it’s even hard to tell that Taylor is still wearing our grandmother’s mink. Caity and I, our parents, and the last few able-bodied relatives and friends all slip and slide up the hill to the gravesite, our heads bowed against the sting of the snow. The deep hole in the ground is the only thing not covered in white batting — our heads and shoulders included.
They don’t drop the casket. I know, I know — it would have been a better story. Sito finally gets her wish, a ride down a snowy hill with all her friends and family watching, marveling to ourselves, “She was right…” But the pallbearers don’t drop her, and the dusty blue casket is safely delivered to the grave. We adorn it with flowers. We say goodbye. We kiss our fingertips and press them to the freezing blue metal. We leave.
A few days later, I sit in the TV room with my grandfather, leafing through the guest book from the viewing. There are hundreds of names, many I don’t recognize — a testament to her life. And there is a space in the front for listing the pallbearers. I write in all the names, including Joshua’s. Because that is the way it was, and it’s forever.