honestly, the best and worst part of the last few days has been my dad’s family. the best part was getting to spend time with all of them and getting to notice qualities about myself that come from all of them. the worst part? flashback to being a little kid and wondering “if dad has such a big family, why don’t they ever come to see us?” they all grew up here, wouldn’t they want to return to their roots every so often? this was the first time any of them had been there at least since my parent’s wedding in 1997. I was five years old and the flower girl. my cousin jonathan was five and the ring bearer. after that I wondered if it was something I did. I saw pictures that they would send and all of my cousins would be in them except for me.
spending so much time with them over the last week and hearing them promise me “We’ll have family reunions every year. You have to promise to be there.” and “Every summer we’ll make the trek to Wisconsin to see you.” has broken my heart. it has brought up all this sadness and just that feeling of being six and seven and eight years old and wondering if my family hated me. and also reminds me of every single promise every Gutermuth family member has ever made to me and broken, my father included.
monday night at my dad’s funeral they all gave me a necklace. it’s a real leaf, dipped in gold, on a thick gold chain with a tiny clasp. they told me, “This is to remind you that the leaf never falls far from the tree. You’re replacing your dad on our family tree. And this is an apology from all of us for neglecting you.” it was a SWEET gesture. it really was. it’s a beautiful necklace and it will always be a sweet memory. but buying me a piece of jewelry, no matter how beautiful or unique, does not make up for the last 24 years of my life that they have missed.
another thing that bugs me? I shouldn’t have to REPLACE my dad on their family tree. I should already be a part of it because I am their niece and granddaughter. I am not my father. he is a part of me, that is undeniable. but I cannot and will not even try to replace the hole that has been created in all of our lives without him.
after the church service, they told me to go Fred’s with Bryce and that they would meet me there. we waited for 20 minutes, until the staff said, “Hey guys, we’re closing the kitchen at nine. If you want food, you have to order now.” so we left and went to log cabin to hang out with my mom and my dad’s very best friends, and all of their kids that I grew up with. his friends became my aunts and uncles. their kids became my playmates, almost like my cousins, and my friends. having a reunion with all them was the best part of this whole situation.
Bryce and I went for a drive after a couple hours, and we saw them all at charcoal grill. they were all at the big table in front of all the windows by the bar. once again, eight year old me poked her head out and thirteen year old me piped up. she reminded me that grandma used to send me Christmas and birthday cards, and then she stopped. the last one I have is dated 2004.
at the cemetery, I kept my distance. I stayed close to the people who are familiar to me. my mom stayed by my side the whole time. we sat with his friends at the luncheon. I kept my distance until everyone wanted to take pictures. then I soaked up all the time with my dad’s siblings while I could and listened closely as everyone promised me they’ll keep in touch, come see me, etc.
we went to Adrian’s after and I got behind the counter to sling custard. (it felt like I was seventeen all over again.) my aunts took pictures of me handing out everyone’s orders. I gave everyone directions on how to get out of town and we all said goodbye. then I went to beachview to get my mom and to say goodbye to and make arrangements with all of his friends to help me go through his stuff.
I’ve been leaning hard on my mom. and his friends are more than willing to catch me when I inevitably fall and she’s not there. they are my family. they were all fixtures of my childhood weekends and summers. I can be myself around all of them. I don’t have to hide my grief because they know. they know the twinkle that always came to my dad’s eye whenever he talked about me. they’ve been able to answer my questions. they show up when I need them and they understand when I need my space.
my family has answered my questions about the early years. his childhood, teenage shenanigans, and his time in the service. his friends have answered the questions about the dad I knew, the dad I grew up with. the one that raced stock cars and collected matchbox cars and took me camping on the weekends I was with him after the divorce.
you shouldn’t be able to count the number of times you’ve seen your aunts and uncles on one hand. I hope that they all realize how important family is now. my dad was the first one of his siblings to die. my grandma and grandpa lost their son—and no one wants to be the parent having to bury their child. I hope that all of their promises aren’t just empty words and noise. but I’m really trying to emotionally prepare myself before I lean on them for support.