Today is my great uncle Gail’s memorial service.

I called my dad last Saturday evening to invite him and my stepmom to dinner for my birthday when he told me the news. My dad, just waking up from a nap, sounded groggy. There was an edge of sadness in his voice.

“Aunt Marian texted me,” he interjected. “Uncle Gail passed away yesterday.”

“Wow,” I responded, recalling the last time I had seen my grandma’s brother-in-law. It was my dad and stepmom’s wedding, held on my grandma’s 75th birthday, in their backyard. My grandma was more than happy to share her birthday with my dad and his new wife.  

After a brief pause, I continued, “I knew he wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t know it was that bad. Do you know when memorial service is yet?”

There was no question in my mind concerning my schedule: I was going home to see my family.  

***

I grew up in a small town — a village — that, generally, I did not leave for the first 18 years of my life. As a senior in high school, I only applied to two colleges, both less than an hour drive from home. (Thankfully, I was accepted at the University of Michigan before having to apply to Michigan State.) Leaving was exciting, yet it simultaneously scared me; I needed the stimulating experience of a completely different place with the security blanket of somewhere that was close to home.

Now, after almost five years in college, I envision all of the things I can accomplish, and I don’t want to look back.

“If I don’t leave now, I don’t think I ever will,” I told one of my coworkers during a lull in customer traffic.

She rolled her eyes, understandably, at my constant use of the word village to describe my hometown during our conversation. I kept rambling.

“I don’t know, though. It’s really hard. I love Michigan and I have a really big family. All of my siblings are still in Parma. All of them have kids. I don’t want to miss anything. But I feel like I need to see more of the world and find the way I can best help others. It’s weird to think about. I feel so conflicted sometimes.”

Struggling with my past, present and future, I went to visit my personal essay professor, John Rubadeau, during his office hours. In our first conversation, I told him about my family: My brother is married to, and has a son with, one of my best friends from high school. He’s buying the house my three siblings and I grew up in from our dad. My youngest brother and his pregnant girlfriend live with them. My sister lived in the house with her husband and (now four) kids for nearly three years before moving 10 minutes outside the village. And that’s just the surface.

Deliberating for a moment while chewing his gum, John responded: “Sounds incestuous.”

“Hmm,” I contemplated, sorting through the facts about my family in my head. “That’s a good word for it.”

But, after leaving his office that day, something kept bothering me. The connotation of “incestuous” seemed so negative. I Googled the definition:

1. Involving or guilty of incest

OK, my family is close, but not that close.

2. (of human relations generally) excessively close or resistant to outside influence, esp. as to prevent proper functioning

Bingo. Incestuous implies something improper.  

***

On Sunday evening, the day after my dad told me about Gail’s death, the local newspaper released his obituary, which I’ve paraphrased below. I read it online and was amazed by the things I didn’t know about my great uncle:

Lloyd “Gail” Reardon was born in 1931 on County Farm Road on the outskirts of the village of Parma. He loved sports and went to the same high school as me and nearly all of my dad’s family; then, it was Parma High School. He met my great aunt Marian, my grandma’s sister, when she stopped into Gail’s Friendly Gas Station, now my uncle’s shop, Don Marsh Service. They had six kids — four sons and two daughters. In 1959, the year before my father’s birth, Gail became the youngest mayor of Parma. He owned and operated several successful businesses: Gail’s Friendly Service gas station and repairs, Parma Party Store, Gail’s Pizza, Gail’s Car Wash, Reardon Realty and probably a few I’m missing here. He was known to many as “Mr. Parma.” His favorite mantra was “Keep on keeping on.” He always put others first. 

Suddenly, a different, more fitting term popped into my head. Integral. Google made this clear for me with a definition:

1. (adj) necessary to make a whole complete; essential or fundamental.

Gail, and most of the other residents in our small town, played an integral role in the history of Parma, shaping the place it is today. He planted a seed that extended well beyond his six children and numerous grandchildren. Uncle Gail did so much for my family, his extended family and so many other people. His influence is everywhere — my youngest brother’s middle name is Lloyd.

In the same way, Parma plays an integral role in my history, shaping who I am today. And, no matter where I end up after graduation, I’ll never let that go.

In loving memory of Lloyd “Gail” Reardon

July 25, 1931 — Feb. 12, 2016

Aarica Marsh can be reached at aaricama@umich.edu. 

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