There are those moments in life when you understand your place in the generations, when Shakespeare’s description of the stages in the life of a man in As You Like It and the expression that all the world’s a stage and the men and women merely players are more than just words, when you feel and grasp in a more visceral way than before time’s inexorable, relentless and indifferent passage.
I had some of those this weekend, when I joined Dunreith and Aidan in Western Massachusetts to spend time with her family.
It had been a while since we had last been there.
Between our trip in March to California, traveling to Germany with Dad to see his hometown in May and flying to Boston last month for Mom’s 75th birthday, this year has been heavy on seeing and spending time with my part of the family.
It’s also been a heavy past couple of years for Dunreith’s side.
Her father Marty died in March 2010 after having Alzheimer’s Disease. Her mother Helen passed in late September last year, barely four months after having been diagnosed with a glioblastoma in May.
I felt their presence throughout the weekend, in the single-floor Frank Lloyd Wright-style house they lived in Wilbraham that’s surrounded by acres and acres of lush green woods.
I felt Helen when Dunreith wore her mother’s green button down shirt.
For an instant, I saw Marty in her brother Shaun’s face as he stopped by at midnight of our first night to say hello and started to tinker with their parent’s grandfather clock.
I heard them when we sat on the couches and chairs in the living room at Josh and Rebecca’s house in Longmeadow, drinking, laughing and talking until the early hours of the morning, trying to work out which traits this generation of Kellys inherited from Marty and which came from Helen.
On Sunday we all gathered at Dunreith Aunt Ginna’s house in Wilbraham. Along with Uncle Dick, who couldn’t make it, she’s one of the two remaining sibilings from that generation of Kellys.
We had been there one short year ago in early July, after Helen had received her diagnosis.
None of us knew how much time she had, but we all knew it probably was in the order of months, not years.
We sat on the patio outside Larry and Ginna’s large and lavish and impeccably clean home at the end of a Wilbraham driveway, the green grass overlooking a steadily shrinking pond where the children can fish, row a boat and seek fresh adventures.
Despite, and perhaps animated by, the knowledge of Helen’s cancer, we treasured the time of being together, laughing extra hard when her sister-in-law Helen, Dick’s wife, told a story about inhaling marijuana fumes at a baseball games and passing out.
On Sunday, we did it again, but this time without my beloved mother-in-law.
The weather was a perfectly clear 75 degrees, and everyone chipped in to bring something to contribute to the brunch that ended up lasting more than six hours.
Lucy, Josh and Rebecca’s younger daughter who was born the week after Marty’s death, entertained herself and us for hours. She danced around in her yellow dress, picked up rocks and played with Kristin and Meghan’s new dog Daphne.
Lucy’s presence sustained Helen in the year after Marty’s passage, the soft, fair skin of their seventh and last grandchild a soothing balm for the pain of the blow that had come from losing the lean and lanky man with whom she had spent her adult life.
Aidan is the oldest of the group, all of whom are making their way through school and sports and activities. They paired off in different combinations, and, while there were momentary tears and occasional words of conflict, were remarkably peaceful as they ate, threw the lacrosse ball around, fished, rowed and chatted.
Their growth-Aidan was just four when I first met him and turns 20 in January-reminded me in a different way both of what Helen and Marty had wrought and that we are now approaching, not right away, but sooner than we realize, the generation of elders that Ginna and Dick now inhabit.
All of us sitting around the patio talked about moments with Helen and Marty. Shaun made everyone laugh when he said that Marty said he didn’t like animals, but they invariably loved him more than the other family members. At one moment I felt as if I could close my eyes and see Helen sitting next to me once again.
The keeping alive of the previous generation through story, the evoking of someone not with us through a loving imitation that ends without surprise but with affirmation of their presence and impact, used to be the province of people who seemed impossibly old and distant.
When I first joined the Kelly family, I heard lots of stories about Dunreith’s paternal grandparents Grammy and Poppy.
Now, Helen and Marty are part of that storytelling tradition, and we are the tellers. The stories about them don’t yet feel as well worn and smooth as the ones I’ve heard about Grammy’s throwing a cookie at a confused would be suitor for Poppy in the nursing home room they shared or her insistent calling of the man she lived with for more than six decades, but, in time, they will be.
We no longer have grandparents, and Dunreith’s side no longer has parents.
One day, perhaps sooner than we know, Aidan, Dylan, Colin, Jacob, Regan, Sarah and Lucy will have their children with them as they tell the stories about us, too.
We are fortunate to be part of the generational cycle, even as our future and inevitable absence from life’s stage can lead to heightened joy and moments of pause.