As I write this, my parents are in Florida for my godfather's funeral, who died suddenly of a heart attack last Wednesday, and my three-month-old nephew is giggling at me (or his hanging raccoon) from his bouncy chair on the table next to me. Yesterday was Mother's Day and while my sisters, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew spent church and brunch with our 90-year-old Gram, Mom and Dad were en route to Florida to take care of my godmother. In her suitcase, my mother carried a container of gingersnap cookies that Cora and I had made earlier in the week, from my great-grandmother's recipe.
My mother has known Liz and Bruce for forty years; she met Bruce at freshman orientation at college. Mom and Liz would later room together; Liz and Bruce would marry the week after graduation. Over the course of forty years, their friendship would remain strong. When their daughter arrived, my mother would be her godmother. When I came along, Liz and Bruce would be my godparents. Liz was maid of honor for my mother, a sister by choice, since my mother is an only child. These are the kinds of friendships that turn into family and the incredible loss of Bruce brings other issues of mortality into sharper focus, closer to home. I remember when my grandmother's brother died, I overheard somebody I didn't recognize say something about what it means when the cousins start dying off. The same thing is happening now: my parents are now the generation that is facing mortality and I've heard from various sources that the Boomer generation will not live as long as their parents, one theory being that they're so dependent and trusting of "the fixes" that they do not feel the need to take care of their bodies and their health because there will always be an angioplasty or Lipitor to take care of the problem.
When Gram turned 90--three days after being diagnosed with terminal cancer--Liz and Bruce sent a lovely note filled with memories, one of which was memories of Liz coming to stay with Mom during college and Gram making gingersnaps for her. The chewy kind, not the crunchy kind. Liz wrote that she spent most of those weekends face-down, sleeping, because that's what college kids do, but she wrote of the incredible love and hospitality that Gram showed her.
When my sisters were in college, attending the same college that Liz, Bruce, and my mother had (Luther College in Decorah, Iowa), the Hoberts lived not too far away and provided occasional weekends-away for my sisters when the seven-hour drive up to northern Minnesota was too far, physically standing in for my parents when my sisters needed that support. When Hoberts moved from Iowa to Florida, we made good use of their moving sale, ending up with their yellow couch, which was a queen-size pullout. It weighed a ton. I have good memories my sisters and I trying to haul that thing up several flights of stairs when K2 moved to Rochester, because it was too big to fit in the elevator. It's rather hard to move a couch that size, that heavy, when you're laughing like loons.
The news about Bruce came while I was dropping Cora off at her house after babysitting her at my parents' house. Cora had extracted a promise from me that the next day, we would make animal cookies (spritz, which we usually just make at Christmas). As I drove back to my parents' house, trying to process the loss, naturally imagining my own parents and their various health issues in the place of Liz and Bruce, and the realities were not comforting. Since I bake when I'm stressed, the prospect of making cookies with my three-year-old niece seemed like the natural thing to do to deal with the grief. And so, as I took butter out of the fridge to come to room temperature overnight (and then putting it in the microwave for safekeeping, since Daisy Doodle has been known to eat anything left on the counter), I found my great-grandmother's recipe for gingersnaps when I went looking for the spritz recipe. Cora calls them "Molasska" cookies.
This had to be the recipe that Gram used to make the gingersnaps that Liz remembered. And so on Thursday, after the spritz were done (and Cora heard "squirrel" when I said "swirl," so they were animal cookies after all), I made a batch of gingersnaps for Mom to take to Liz. These are the perfect gingersnaps. They're not too heavy on the molasses and the other spices fill out the flavors--and they're chewy.
On Mother's Day, we took Gram to church, even though she doesn't hear much of it and then we took her to my sisters' house for brunch (which my brother-in-law had made while we were out). The pastor asked the congregation to think of all the mothers we've had in our lives, beyond the one we call Mom. Who else has nurtured us, taught us, been formative in who we are? The way we define family is unique to each individual and no two families look quite alike, nor should they. This doesn't make one family better or worse than another. The house I grew up in doesn't look like the house that Cora and Henry are growing up in--and I have no plans for children myself. We talk about the sandwich generation, about the role the economy is playing in grown and educated children living with their parents, of active aging parents moving in with their Boomer kids. Families do not look the same as the seeming ideal of the 1950s household, simply because how long we live, when we choose to retire (if we can, at all), and the decisions we make that cause us to question and affirm the relationships of those closest to us.
Today the Minnesota State Senate is voting on Marriage Equality (the House passed the bill on Friday) and it's expected to pass, then will be signed by the governor. This follows Rhode Island and Delaware approving marriage equality in their states and it appears Illinois is next in line. Sometimes our families are legal in nature, sometimes they are by friendship and choice, sometimes they are religious. We don't need our families to all look the same, but we all want the same thing out of life: to love and support each other, to teach and challenge each other to be better and larger than themselves, to take care of each other when we cannot do that for ourselves. That is what families do.
That is the reason that my mother is in Florida right now, the reason that I'm babysitting my niece and nephew today in their stead, watching Henry snuggle and toot in his sleep, the reason that I used my great-grandmother's gingersnap recipe to send Gram's love to Liz.