My Elders: Remembering, Embodying, & Yearning
We are in the midst of holidays and coming up on more. And it is around this time, I feel the complexity of going/being home. I have many homes, often made up of people more so than walls. And I am still brought back to my original home, with my family in South Florida, and really this year just feels a bit different in reflection.
One of the things about "the holidays," for my family Christmas, that was always special to me was who was present during those times. Indeed, while much of my extended family is present as well as chosen family circles, there was one group in particular that congregated together for the holidays in our house - my elders. Indeed, it was a time where those who I had a certain reverence for were front and center. My great Uncle Charlie, the only other man in my life who I thought of like a dad beside my own dad, would come down and spend a few weeks with our family. Grandma & Grandpa Lange would come down the afternoon of Christmas Eve and leave on the 27th in the early morning. Leonie, or as most of us called her Pom-Pom, was also with us around this time. My elders have always been great. They have been patient and tender with me, always encouraging me and full of wit to keep me in line and keep me on my best game right back. They would play games with my sister and me when our parents were preoccupied or just looking for a break from us. Those four folks represent(ed) everything that love is, the love that bell hooks described - they mixed care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and honest and open communication.
And in some ways, I feel as though this year is just a bit harder and I have a new commitment to internalizing and embodying lessons I've clearly been resistant to before now. You see, the lesson I thought about but never internalized and acted upon was this: the elders that are invested in us and are in relationship with us provide so many of us this beautiful love and our duty is to learn as much as we can about what informs that love - the histories, resiliency, and wisdom behind that love. And I clearly haven't been doing that. Over time, three of these elders' time here has come to an end. Lemme share a bit about each of them.
Leonie "Pom-Pom" Quallo
We lost Pom-Pom in Dec. 2007 around my birthday, though we lost much of her even earlier than that to Alzheimer's. She lived well into her 80's. I was one of three folks who were not her children who spoke at her services. I'll never forget my Mom looking over at me, in tears, asking me to say something, to talk about my grandmother at the new age of 18. The two speakers who went before me were longtime family friends, knew much more about Pom Pom than I did. And still I articulated something in that time. I shared with the audience how I learned more about my grandmother that day than I ever had before. Sure, my times with her in the last ten years were limited because I had questions that she could not meet with answers. And yet, that is an excuse, not a limitation. I learned how she loved to watch Jeopardy!, something I thought only I picked up from my Dad. I learned about her deep desire to talk with others. On her way to lunch each day when she worked at The Miami Herald, she would talk with everyone; she often only had five minutes to eat herself. This is something I share with her and my mom -- a deep desire to find connection with others in all times of the day. I said that day, in front of those people, I was both inspired and troubled by this: inspired to have such a powerful woman I was connected to in this way and yet troubled that it took her death to learn as much as I did.
Uncle Charles Luke
We lost my Uncle Charlie in Nov. 2013, though I feel the loss was a bit earlier than that. I'll still never forget the place, the feeling when he didn't remember who I was over the phone. Lived well into his 80's. Gosh, I wanted to be like my uncle when I was growing up! He always went out on these walks/jogs with his yellow Walkman. He was so knowledgeable about music, often made me appreciate the classics even when I didn't want to. He taught me how to get through Mom's shopping trips, telling me he'd always find a nice seat at the front of the store and chat with the pretty ladies who would walk by. When I wore Brut cologne, it was because of him -- to this day that smell reminds me of my uncle. He was in many ways the person who got me interested in law, regaling me with stories of working for courts in New York, even being friends with Judge Judy in his tenure. My uncle was always the coolest guy in the world to me; he was suave, always well dressed, and opinionated. We got to spend time together each summer in my mid-teens, where I'd spend a week or two up in Manhattan with him. We'd explore a bit but we'd get to talk, watch PBS, and court TV. It was never anything fancy because it didn't need to be fancy. It was just me and Uncle C, which is all it ever needed to be.
Bob "Grandpa" Lange
My mom's dad, Charles Quallo, passed before I was born. Thus, there was only one person I actively named "grandpa" in my life. That was Bob Lange. And this past summer, we lost Bob Lange after he got to spend 96 incredible years on this planet. A fiercely compassionate, witty man who always cared about and centered family. He inspired me to pick up a harmonica with the ways he bent notes and played it for all of us on our birthdays. I don't know if I just whistle more now or just notice it more -- but that's Bob's doing. You always knew when grandpa was around, just whistling to pass the time. He was a man of pride, both for himself and his family. I still aspire to come close to his sharpness and wit. He never let an opportunity to flex either go by. Heck, he's such a guy that he once paid me a $1 to smile for a family photo. That's still something to this day I am reminded of by the Lange Gang. He was in every way the beloved patriarch of our family.
I am still incredibly blessed to have my grandma, Rita Lange, still in my life. In fact, in less than two weeks, I get to pick Rita up from Pensacola, where she now lives with my aunt and uncle and bring her home for Christmas. Last year, we had none of our elders present with our family. It felt weird. This year will still feel weird and yet it feels like such an honor and blessing to get to have my grandma with us this year. My grandma is simultaneously a pinnacle of joy and no-nonsense. She loves to dance, to have a good time (indeed, her and Bob served as the anchors in family flip cup several years in a row), and goes with the flow. She also knows what she's not going to do and what her non-negotiables are. She loves to play board games, or at least indulge her grandchildren with games. And this year, I cannot wait to have my grandma for such an extended time. Indeed, it will be the longest set of time I have ever gotten to spend with my grandmother. And I am committed to investing in her the same love she has done for me all these years.
I think Pom-Pom, Uncle Charlie, and Grandpa would all say I invested love in them. I invested the love I could at the time. And yet, in some ways, I feel there are so many more questions I wanted to ask each of them. I now hunger for more about their histories, their tough times, their good times, and more. In some ways, I feel selfish for not being more interested in those questions during their lives. And I didn't have the language nor the curiosity that I do now to do something different with the answers to those questions. In some ways, their absences from my life feel somewhere between just and unjust. They all lived long lives and were all ready to go when they did. I selfishly want more time with each of them, time to just be curious about them a bit more actively. And even though that curiosity existed within me prior to Pom-Pom's passing, I still did not enact it with them in my further times with Uncle Charlie and Grandpa.
Let's be clear. This isn't a woe is Alex party or a self-shaming thing. This is me sharing what I have yet to act upon and a (re)commitment for me to do so. I already embody so much of what these four people brought/bring to my life; I need to me making these connections more every day. I want that to be their memory in my life: my continuous example of the embodiment of these four people who have taught me so much about my own self over time. I yearn for more about their histories, their stories, their wisdom that I am going to (more) intentionally explore over my life while also soaking up who I still get to enjoy. And that's where I'm at.