Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

November 26, 2013

The empty chair and memories

By Melissa Conrad Daily News
Greensburg Daily News

---- — On the wall in our living room hangs a large painting that I bought at a small art show several years ago. It is a simple painting with rich, deep gold and burgundy oil colors that I enjoy. Just off center in this painting is a cozy, green arm chair that sits empty next to a side table where an old phonograph player rests. To the left of the chair is a door that stands slightly open with light seeping into the simple room. I have never been able to figure out if the door is open because someone has just left, or if they left it ajar because they were coming right back.

It was the empty chair that drew me in when I first saw the painting on a rainy night so many years ago. I hadn’t intended to buy a painting that evening, let alone one that takes two people to carry, but art has a way of finding you, not the other way around. At the time, I had recently gone through the passing of my dear, beloved, mother-in-law. She was a lover of all things musical, a shining spirit full of many kind words, whimsical conversation and the affection one so often wishes for in family. The chair seemed custom made for her, next to the music she so loved.

It is years later now, and in the family farm home where we live, that painting still hangs prominently on the wall. When all are asleep in my home, I sometimes sit in the living room at night and look at this painting and remember our times together. When my house is full of family and friends, food filling the tables and laughter spilling from room to room, I will often find myself looking, again, at this now-familiar painting and remembering those gatherings of years ago.

For me, this empty chair was my way of making sure that no matter how crowded or busy schedules became in our lives, the people who are no longer here like my mother-in-law, my own mother and father, and more recently my grandmother and grandfather, would always have a seat in our home, hearts and gatherings. There would always be this green chair, unoccupied, waiting for them. This painting became a ready reminder of each of them; somehow serene and welcoming in the memories of us sitting together in other times, laughing, living, loving.

As Thanksgiving approaches and I am the one to plan the meal, cook the turkey and coordinate the family guests, I especially miss these women of our family who came before me. In years gone by, at our simple farm house, it would be my grandmother and mother who led the way in preparing the family meal. Tables would fill the heated front porch and kitchen, awaiting the collection of related and un-related family and friends that made our home their holiday destination.

For several years now, I have found myself in the position of being the elder woman and matriarch in our family. The smiles, laughter and sheer competence in the kitchen of the women who came before me and left too soon are deeply missed. Their wisdom for handling everything from the art of cooking egg noddles, to solving life’s ever-present challenges or simply lending a sympathetic ear is no longer close at hand. I miss them and the light they shone on this family so very, very much.

This week, as the home fills with younger generations of family for another Thanksgiving and I gaze uncertainly still at the old recipes cooking slowly in the oven, I know I will look at this chair on the wall across a crowded room and remember again how blessed and thankful I am to have had these beautiful, caring and wise family members in my life. While they are gone now, at this home and hearth, there will always be an empty seat reserved and a place for memories of how much they added to this blessed family.

I miss you, Mom. I miss you, Dad. I miss you Grandma and Grandpa. So very much. You were people whose footsteps are both so hard and so very simple to follow. With whatever years I have to be the lady of this house, I only hope that I can impart some of what each of you gave to me, to those who must be the keeper of the recipe box for warm food, warm hearts and warm remembrances in the future.

I am thankful for the time we all had. I am thankful for family. I am thankful for the blessings of having had these family members in our lives. Your seat in this home is forever secure and your place at this table and in our hearts guides us still. And, no matter how hard I try, I will never get the hang of making your perfect pecan pie, Grandma. What you added could never fit on a recipe card.

This Thanksgiving, I will set a table for the first time without my dear Grandpa. We will carry on as best we can and remember all of them in our prayers before we sit down together. Their memories are with us still. May God bless you and yours this Thanksgiving. I find that all we can do sometimes, especially when loss is so recent, is simply be thankful for those who fill the chairs around our table - so many are gone too soon.

May memories begin to help fill the empty chair and spaces the loss of loved ones leaves behind. Peace be with you.

Melissa Conrad, 812-663-3111 ext. 7010