AMBER LOVE 09-FEB-2016 Let me share a personal story that I’ve never talked about publicly before. We have to step into a time machine and roll back to 1988.

My grandparents on my mother’s side were simply “the best” in grandparent material. It was odd though because we called my grandmother “Gram” and my grandfather “Phil.” It was always weird because he was the only grandfather I ever had. He was in the family before I was born. He was without any doubt, my grandfather.

But Phil was Gram’s second husband and she hit the jackpot with him. My mother’s biological father died fairly young in his 40s from a blood disorder. Phil married my Gram and lived in our matriarchal family home with her and my great-grandmother. At some point even my mother and newborn lived there while my father was drafted or so I was told.

old family photos
Gram & The Italians

Phil was The Italian. It’s where I get my Italian nature. I guess I’m the Rachel Dolezal of Italians, only my undeniably Polish-Anglo-Saxon DNA kept me from ever “passing” as anything else. We were Tom Hagens in a house with some Corleones. We used to have big Italian style holidays where there was plastic on the furniture. I’d try to learn a few things about the old country, but nothing would stick in my brain. What stuck wasn’t knowledge; it was a moral value. I was learning through life experience that “family” has nothing to do with DNA.

I remember getting the news of his death. It was 1988 and my brother and I were a year apart in high school. Our names were called over the loud speakers. A couple of my friends had a feeling something was wrong and escorted me. Phil had been in hospice with cancer. I got into the office and my brother was talking on the phone. He slid it under his chin with the cord tethering him close to the secretary’s desk. “Phil’s dead.” He went back to his conversation which ended shortly after that.

I remember I didn’t have anything nice to wear to something so formal as a funeral. Neon teal jeans and a Metallica t-shirt were simply not going to do. I was taken shopping (crying the entire time) and there were strict rules: black, maybe grey, you could use navy as an emergency last resort but not really for family, and under no circumstances anything with red. I got a black skirt and black and grey striped shirt. I didn’t have a nice coat so I had to borrow one from someone. I can’t even remember who that was. The coat was pilled black and grey wool, but the inside lining material was red. Could I wear that coat? How could I be so uncouth as to not have a nice coat for fancy events? Everyone made an extremely big deal about my inability to have a reasonable Sunday wardrobe.

I was given instructions by more than one woman: I had to wear the coat buttoned up and when I needed to remove the coat, I had to make sure no one in the funeral parlor could see me or see it hanging on a rack where the lining might be visible. Apparently this desperate attempt to look halfway decent could send me straight to Hell. No Valhalla for me.

old family photos 1960s

The funeral was like nothing I’d ever seen. I don’t think I’d ever been to one in person before. I’d only seen them on TV. As one of The Italians of Elizabeth, New Jersey, Phil was loved and respected. The people — god, there were so many people. It seemed like the three-day affair would never be over.

Naturally, my stoic Gram had her moments of crying. She was quite the statue though, like a soldier. A very short soldier with a Q-tip cotton white bouffant. Sad, I expected and I saw. Rage took me by surprise.

A gorgeous elegant woman came down the far aisle. She wore a fur coat. Not a hair on her head out of place and still shiny from the hair lacquer. It was the kind of hairdo rich women on TV dramas had where you know you could never fix it like that every day if you had that haircut, but the stylists make it flawless. Everything about her would have said she was all class. Then I saw the fury in my Gram’s eyes and heard things like, What is she doing here? She has some nerve.

My Gram gripped the hands of the people next to her, I think one was my mother. They looked like ladies-in-waiting coming to the urgent need of the Queen.

AmberUnmasked old family photos

Later on, I learned that the fancy pants woman was named Frances and that she was Phil’s first wife.

First wife?

I guess he paid her whatever he was supposed to as was required through the years, but my little kid or teen ears had never heard this name Frances before and had no idea what this meant to my Gram all those years she was married.

I’ve experienced that rage and fury my Gram had. Too many times. Each time, I think I’m dying because my heart can’t possibly take the hard work it required. The crushing feeling and out of control pulse. Ears throbbing from the pressure. Things look different in a swirly sort of tunnel vision. Legs want to buckle. Hands, they’re the worst, shaking so uncontrollably they’re more of a handicap than a symptom to hide.

I know I can’t say I’ll never feel that rage again because it keeps happening. But I can make the conscious decision to never be the Frances that causes it.

When you go to a funeral, it’s called “paying respects.” It’s supposed to mean paying respects to the dead, but in that sentiment, the respects to the family are glaringly absent.

A year ago, someone in my ex-husband’s family died. I saw it on Facebook. It’s a different time than when Frances skated through my life. There was no block button for her. When this ex’s relative died, I was still Facebook friends with her. I read all the sweet and loving posts people made. I cried.

I also knew the funeral information because it wasn’t private. I remember posting to my own Facebook that I wanted to go, but it didn’t feel right. She wasn’t my family anymore and hadn’t been for years. People told me to go, but that it was fine if I didn’t.

I thought it about all day and decided not to go. I mourned privately in my home (publicly on Facebook but without “tagging” her name). I left her husband one public, “I’m so sorry” comment in the stream with the others and that was it. Her husband, by the way, hated my guts to the point where he even hacked my emails at one time. I didn’t message my ex-husband or try to reach his parents. I didn’t send a card.

I was not going to become Frances.

The way I paid respects was by staying home. That seemed more respectful to all parties. There were boundaries and I chose not to cross them.

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