Especially at holiday times, our hearts are the same

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

For eight straight years, I have sat beside my sister on the deck of a Caribbean-bound cruise ship. During these seven-day family adventures, we have watched our children grow — from rambunctious youngsters racing up double-decker steps to a tunneled waterslide to nonchalant teenagers who quietly disappeared into their private no-adults-allowed clubs.

They haven’t been the only ones to grow and change.

This year, Rachel and I found the perfect spot to perch at the adult pool while our kids enjoyed an excursion. We chatted, noting the fit and not-so-fit swimmers, the amazing range of body types, and the new swimsuit styles — some of which we used to wear ourselves. Cut up to here and down to there, the racier ones made us wonder if everything would stay in its place when these women moved in and out of the pool. Barefaced and hatless, they basked in the heat of the day, their tans deepening by the minute.

“We’re a little different now, Sissy,” I said to Rachel as we gazed from under our broadbrimed hats through our polarized sunglasses to our conservatively attired bodies.

“Yes,” she said quickly as she lathered on more sunscreen. “But our hearts are the same.”

And I smiled. There’s nothing quite like a sister’s on-target remark to put things in perspective.

Our hearts are indeed the same.

Rachel was always the wide-open, unpredictable, blonde bombshell who never met a stranger and was never in doubt about too much. I was the blue-eyed brunette, shy in my own way, who was more reserved and prone to deep thought.

But we have both cherished our family life and carried that mindset from our childhood to our own family homes — 700 miles apart.

Our yearly cruises and holiday visits have kept us connected. Whether at our shore-side buffets, Thanksgiving dinners or sitting poolside people watching, we have detached from our daily duties and created our own rhythm for living. Life has rolled over and through us through those eight years, sharply redefining the context for our lives. We lost Dad in 2003, Mom in 2005, and Rachel divorced and remarried in that same eight-year window.

That’s a lot of loss and a lot of change. And looking back, there’s also a lot of sheer will and commitment to just keep life moving forward.

Rachel and I discovered that life after the loss of both parents brings a chapter to the end that abruptly alters family. Unwillingly, a new generation is promoted into leadership.

Sometimes we are not ready.

Reconfigured roles settle awkwardly on us as we sort out what was from what is. And we dare not imagine what will be. Life is so different and often difficult because we have lost our anchors.

Yet our hearts, although deeply hurt, are the same.

The mending goes on for years, fed by loving memories, heirloom history and good, old-fashion story-telling. The recipes and traditions of each season connect the past to the present when you share what has been shared with you. You feel their presence when you use their turn of phrase, make their signature holiday dishes or repeat family customs passed down through each generation.

“Memory is more than a looking back to a time that is no longer,” author Frederick Buechner once wrote. “It is looking out into another kind of time altogether where everything that ever was continues not just to be, but to grow and change with the life that is in it still.”

After all, our hearts are still the same.