The day Elijah was born, Chip’s sister, Ellen, called us at the hospital to congratulate us. She was so damn happy for her baby brother. I had never even met Ellen - she was some 20 years older than Chip and lived in a different city. As she finished her conversation with him, she asked him to put me on the phone. It was like the sister-in-law adaptation of his mother telling me to call her “Mom” now. We were sisters.
By the time Elijah was a toddler and we finally got up to St. Louis to see her, Ellen was already sick. We ended up making that trip several times over the next couple of years. Ellen was an extraordinary woman who was wildly loved by everyone who knew her. Love-as-a-verb kind of love. I mean, people LOVED her.
Ellen was a teacher and guidance counselor at a girls’ school in suburban St. Louis. The year she passed, her students dedicated the yearbook in her honor. Her funeral was held in the imposing gothic chapel on
Washington University campus, and there was an overflow crowd.
This woman touched a lot of people in her life. And I don’t mean that she met a lot of people because she happened to work in a school. I mean that she touched the life of anyone that she ever met. The service was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. People who wildly loved her put together the most perfect, beautiful memorial to her life.
It is here that my story begins.
In the Jewish tradition, Ellen’s family unveiled her headstone a year after her death. Chip and I went back to St. Louis with a 2-and-a-half-year-old Elijah, for this smaller, more intimate family service, where we took turns sharing personal stories of how we kept Ellen’s memory alive. We left rocks on the headstone. The extended family convened from every corner at Ellen & Al’s house: California, New York City, Memphis and Chicago cousins.
I loved these times with Chip’s family. For one thing, his was the only family I’ve ever watched come closer together because of a death, rather than ripping apart. His brother’s family is Orthodox Jewish and my sister-in-law Nancy very patiently explained all of the Jewish traditions to me. I soaked them in like a college student taking their first world religion class.
The Jewish traditions made a lot more sense than our American ones. Sitting Shiva, for instance. You sit quietly for seven days following the funeral, while friends and family members come by to visit with you and feed you. Why sit Shiva? Because the first stage of grief is denial. The week of sitting Shiva pushes the grievers through the denial stage and moves them towards acceptance.
You have to admit, that is a much healthier tradition than rushing back to work after three paid days off. Now I see why Jewish traditions have lasted for 5,000 years.
We returned to Memphis after the unveiling, and one evening I was at home with Elijah, working in the kitchen or doing homework at the table, perhaps. I had the TV on as background noise - something I’ve done since I lived in my first apartment. It doesn’t really matter to me what the show is, as long as it qualifies as appropriate background noise. Like right now, as I write this, Friends is on, albeit turned down very low. That’s my comfort show.
And keep in mind that this was the mid-90s when parents had to record Barney on the VCR so their kids could watch it during times of day when it wasn’t actually airing. I feel like I have to clarify that we used to live this troglodyte existence in a time before streaming, when you could only watch what was currently airing at that immediate time of day.
I must have thought that Touched by an Angel would count as an appropriate family viewing hour show, because that’s what was on, even though I don’t remember ever watching that show any other time.
As the program ended, a tender-hearted Roma Downey told that week’s guest star that she’s actually an angel, sent by God, with a very important message to share. (Spoiler: the message was always “God loves you,” in Roma’s soft Irish lilt.)
And Elijah, who I’d assumed was playing in the room but not actually listening to the show, said to me, “I don’t get it. Can we see angels or not see angels?”
“Well, I don’t know, E,” I said. I hadn’t given this much thought but in my head, there were three distinct theories of thought when it came to angels: The first being that they don’t exist, but that one seemed wildly inappropriate to share with a two-year-old.
“Some people think angels look just like people in the room with us,” I explained, “like Monica was with that
sad man on the TV. Others think maybe angels are around us all the time, and we just can’t see them.”
E considered this for a minute, and I thought we might be heading into a conversation about ghosts, but instead he asked, “What about Aunt Ellen?”
Not even three and already his brain is moving in directions mine didn’t. “What about Aunt Ellen?” I asked him.
“We can see Aunt Ellen.”
“Oh,” I said. Conversations with two-year-olds are nothing if not enlightening. I couldn’t wait to see what he thought “seeing her” was. “Where do you see Aunt Ellen?”
“At Uncle Al’s,” he said. Duh, Mom.
“Well, we see pictures of Aunt Ellen at Uncle Al’s,” I confirmed, as if my preschooler didn’t know the difference between a framed photograph and an angel.
“Yeah,” he agreed, “and we see Aunt Ellen,” he said adamantly. It seemed clear as day to him.
I would require more information to see it as clearly. “Where do you see Aunt Ellen at Uncle Al’s?”
“In the kitchen.”
And then it dawned on me…he means where everyone gathered. Where we ate, shared, laughed, and cried together. I tend to fall in the angels-aren’t-real camp most of the time, but I had to admit that if, indeed, Angel Ellen was real, she would undoubtedly be in the kitchen with her family.
“Elijah, you’re telling me that you see Aunt Ellen in the kitchen with us when we’re at Uncle Al’s house?” I asked, wanting to be sure I got this absolutely right.
“Yeah,” he said. “Don’t you?”