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It's a different day

Jul 12, 2013 - By Chris Peck

The last of my elder generation is gone

My mother-in-law died a few days ago, and the umbrella closed.

The umbrella held in the well-calloused hands of that older generation that picks you up from life's hard knocks.

The umbrella of life experience that calms the worries of new mothers and new fathers as they fret the details of how to raise their own kids.

The umbrella of family unity that deflects slings and arrows from co-workers, rivals and enemies who simply cannot penetrate the loving shield of those who are older and who care fiercely about their own.

The enduring value of the older generation only grows as years pass. Over the decades, if you are lucky enough to have a good family, you come recognize the shield from the storm that your elders provide.

And when the last person of that band of protectors passes on, there comes a sudden, blazing realization: There is no more umbrella of wisdom, protection and comfort.

By the time I turned 32, all my Wyoming grandparents were gone.

They were stout and strong early-life protectors.

When walking home from the old junior high school in Riverton I'd stop by the tidy West Park Ave. home of my grandmother, Elvira Peck. She of the fourth pew of the Methodist church, owner-operator of the Morning Star Dairy, and the inquiring mind that always asked about my schoolwork.

Because of her I wanted to be tidy and do well in school.

My other grandmother, Ina Smith of Crowheart, cooked southern biscuits and gravy. She had chickens, and a .22 and ran a general store where the Shoshones and Arapaho played poker in the back and bartered beadwork in the front.

So I like poker and beadwork. And biscuits.

Now, at 62, my parents and in-laws are all gone, too.

My mother disappeared first, dead in car wreck east of Rawlins in1996. When I was at her side she spoke of the wonders of classical music and wrote poetry about Wyoming. She believed that living in a small western town created no barriers to anything and that who you were was up to you. I've tried to pass all those notions on to my kids.

My dad went next -- victim of a mosquito bite that carried West Nile virus. He battled it for six months, but died in 2007.

He was the role model for most everything in my life. He worked at newspapers. So did I. He believed that everybody had value, Republican or Democrat , white or non-white. He thought about the future, even as he loved his roots.

And in the toughest times of my life, he didn't judge. He listened. And he loved.

Most recently, both my father-in-law and my mother-in-law passed on in the last eight months.

Peter and Frances provided me with windows to another world. The world of academics, because my father-in-law Peter spent 50 years at Stanford University. The wonders of California, with different seasons, different people, different attitudes that my mother-in-law so reflected. The welcoming embrace of a big Irish Catholic family that laughed, cried and drank in ways that didn't fit into the so-reserved Protestant upbringing where my roots could be traced.

It's a gift to have in-laws that care about you and who can take up the slack when your own parents are gone. Good in-laws are like a good friend. They aren't burdened by old family secrets, or struggles. Unconsciously and naturally they offer an alternative to what you always thought was the way things worked.

The in-laws open presents on Christmas Eve. And it's just fine even if your own mom and dad always opened presents on Christmas Day.

In-laws are dog people, and teach you about dogs -- even if your childhood pets were cats.

And, the in-laws tell different family stories. You learn from your in-laws that good people can make their way as firemen and bartenders, researchers and office workers, in careers and life choices wholly different from your own family's pathways.

From all of that you grow. You broaden your understanding of the world. You discover unexpected sources of inspiration.

Sadly, if you live long enough, a dawn arises when all the grandparents, and parents, and in-laws are gone.

It's a different day. A harsher sky. A more lonely path with no band of elders ahead.

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