What My Mother Taught Me About Keeping a Family Close

by Sarah Bregel
Originally Published: 

When my mother was 9, her own mom moved out. My grandfather, whom I called “Pop-Pop,” had to figure out how to raise his two daughters alone, on a piano player’s meager salary. Often they didn’t have clean clothes in the drawers, clean dishes in the cupboard or enough money to pay the rent.

Most people in my mother’s position would’ve had a hard time looking the person who abandoned them in the face. But, while it probably wasn’t easy, my mother didn’t write my grandmother off. In fact, she made sure that her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, Jack—who 40 years later became her husband—were staples in my childhood, as was my Pop-Pop.

My mother made sure our home was filled with the warmth of adoring grandparents, despite the complicated relationships between them. Our house, the red-brick row home where my mom still lives, became the meeting place for every holiday or birthday celebration. It was where our family laughed and talked, and it was held together by my mother’s determination that my sister and I would grow up surrounded by love.

Sometimes there were arguments, when anger brewed and tensions rose. But more than anger, there was music, dancing, singing and a lot of eating. My Pop-Pop slammed on piano keys while Jack sang along, and you would’ve never known that one had married the other’s wife. You would’ve just thought they were old Army buddies.

My grandparents on my mother’s side weren’t the only ones who were divorced; so were my father’s parents. But for some reason—maybe it was for the grandkids, or an excuse to drink wine and celebrate—everyone agreed to come together to share in their grandchildren’s lives. My paternal grandfather always brought his young girlfriend-of-the-moment, while his ex-wife, my Nana, doted on us and tapped her foot to the music. Sometimes Jack and my Pop-Pop argued about how the song should go—whether Jack’s singing was flat or Pop-Pop’s tempo too quick. But they were all there, watching and applauding generously as my sister and I danced around the living room floor.

My grandmother’s husband passed away, and a few years later, my Pop-Pop developed dementia so severe he would sit on my mom’s couch at our gatherings and tell you the same thing a hundred times in a row and never have a clue.

As my mom says, “He didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground,” and it might’ve been true. Now, my mother keeps a mug above her sink inscribed with his name, Paul, and its meaning, “humble,” which he was in every sense of the word. Despite years of smoking cigarettes and drinking white Zinfandel, my grandmother is somehow still alive.

Although at times, my mother’s relationship with her mother is challenging, remarkably, they still have one. My grandmother is present for every event, still a staple in my life and now my children’s lives. Through the years, through open-heart surgeries and dementia, depression and Alzheimer’s, my mother somehow held everyone together. Although these days the crowd is significantly smaller and the piano goes untouched, we still gather at the red-brick row house on holidays.

While we sometimes talk over each other or get upset about insignificant things, I know why we are there—it’s all because of my mother. No one taught my mother about family. She had to teach herself, and she had to build it for herself. But in the process, she taught everyone around her about it, too. That it’s messy, chaotic, loud and joyful. It will never look perfect or be at all like you want it to be, but it is totally worth the mess.

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