I sat in my aunt’s kitchen sometime within the first few years after my mother’s death, marveling at the women gathering. It is a simple thing, how the generations gather, talking, cooking, laughing, understanding one another like only family can. The simplicity, the familiarity of just knowing who you are and where you come from, of knowing one another, speaking a language all your own, even if no words are uttered. They didn’t know I was marveling at the wonder of the generations of women gathering in the kitchen. Such a commonplace occurrence, who would stop to notice?
My aunt showed me the picture of the hands. The woman hands, telling a story of the generations before and after. The strong women, who gathered in kitchens, my grandmother using her hands to make home made noodles…hands that once held six babies, worked in the factory to support them as a single mother, caught fish, sprinkled sugar over my strawberries, hands full of arthritis…but strong still. Her daughter, her daughter’s daughter, and her daughter’s daughter’s daughter.
I swallowed hard. Blinking back tears, as they showed their picture…the one with the generations before and after…still intact. And, mine all broken, and stolen, my family tree, my daughters and mother, my line of strong women who should’ve gathered in the kitchen, using their hands to make food good for the body and soul…laughing and telling our stories…speaking the language all our own…mine gone. Before and after.
I smiled, complimenting the picture. Looking away. So no one would notice the gaping hole of missing. The stabbing truth of what wasn’t and should’ve been, stealing my breath. I never want them to notice that, or anyone to notice that sacred pain that hides in shame. Never wanting to be the one stealing joy, spreading discomfort, inconveniencing with my pain.
It has been 17 years since I dreamed of the twin daughters, growing in my womb, daughters who would be grafted into the strong line of women filling our family tree. Women who would one day fill my kitchen, and then their own. The dream ended in silence, and the branch of my family tree was chopped clean away, along with a generation of dreams, on a snowy November morning when they were born so tiny and still. The generations after me…the ones filled with daughters from my womb, gone. Taken.
Ten years later, while the leaves burst forth with the glorious splendor of late October, my mother slipped away after a battle with cancer more hideous than I could’ve ever imagined. And, with her went the generation before me. Another branch, chopped clean away, as I ran to the hospice chapel to wail alone, away from the other women with all their generations still in tact. So they wouldn’t see a pain that should be kept from the eyes of those who haven’t known the wail that comes from unknown depths. The sacred grief wail that cries when the generations before and after are pruned away in one definitive, merciless swipe of death’s ax.
Although many Christmases have passed since the pruning of my generations of women, and the reminder with a picture of what will never be for me, the thought still stings fresh each year, when I open the boxes containing the memories of the generations here now, and those before and after. Those in the present time, and those awaiting our reunion in heaven’s glory, represented and complete, even if only on my family Christmas tree. The reminder of branches cut away felt, like the phantom pain of amputated limbs.
I’m so grateful for those who still have the gift of the generations of women surrounding them. Grateful for the generations of women who came before me, not just in my blood family… but in my heart family as well. Both those still with us, and those who’ve gone on to glory. I’m grateful for the legacy of my daughters, girls so mighty in their smallness, that by God’s grace, they helped change the world, even without taking one breath on planet earth.
But, nothing. Nothing this side of heaven, will ever take away the missing that comes from the loss of the generations before and after me. I am aware of the stark reality of my pruned generations every time I watch women gather in kitchens. Perhaps it is the missing that allows me to notice and wonder at the miracle of what others may regard as commonplace. And, perhaps, the noticing of the miracle is the haunting, bittersweet gift of it all.
Kelly Gerken is the president and founder of Sufficient Grace Ministries, an organization providing perinatal hospice services, bereavement support and Dreams of You memory-making materials to families facing the loss of a baby through miscarriage, stillbirth, infant death and the death of a young child. Kelly has walked through the loss of three of her five children, and now reaches out to walk with other grieving families as an SGM perinatal loss support doula and SGM Remembrance Photographer. She is a creator and facilitator of training for birth professionals on compassionate care for bereaved parents facing perinatal loss. Her memoir, Sufficient Grace, was published in 2014. You can read more about Kelly’s journey of grace, hope and healing and the outreaches of SGM, order resources or find her book here: www.sufficientgraceministries.org.