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When I teach probability, I often teach multiplying probabilities using a “tree” diagram. Sometimes these diagrams represent probabilities from a problem, sometimes they represent flips of a coin (that may come up heads or tails), and often they represent children born into a family (that may be boys or girls.) It is that last diagram that I have found myself thinking of lately as I face the first year of winter holidays without my mother.

When my sister died, I experienced the first year as a series of holidays, birthdays and anniversaries from which she was absent, until the year ticked off to slowly on the way to creating a “new normal.” Now that my mother has died, I realize that the same thing will happen again. However, knowing what will come in the months ahead does not make it any easier. Truthfully, I wish I could go to sleep and wake up in February.

To make things more difficult, I have discovered that I am now in the position of being the oldest living woman among those at all close to me in my family. I never imagined that I would someday become the matriarch of my Italian family, especially since anyone who knows me can tell you that, for me, cooking spaghetti most often involves opening a jar of sauce labeled “Ragu.” The added responsibility that this role brings with it seems overwhelming as Christmas approaches. My father is several states away, as are my brother in law and his (and my sister’s) children, my niece and nephew. They all tried to come to Ohio for Thanksgiving, but ended up turning back when a huge snowstorm blocked their way across Pennsylvania. I was amused to hear that the snow storm had been named, in a manner similar to the way they name hurricanes. Since when did they start doing that?

I helped my dad get organized in the days after my mother’s death, to find people to mow his lawn and plow his driveway, and helped him figure out where he would get a daily meal. However, he is still alone for the first time in over fifty years, and it is common t that my conversations with him end with us both in tears. I have my own family and daughter to keep my mind occupied, but I worry that he has little to fill his days. I suggest things for him to do, some of which he does and some of which he does not do. In the end, all I know is that he misses my mother desperately.

Perhaps because I spend my days around young people, the new role of oldest woman snuck up on me, which does not make it any easier. And so, I am asking my readers, do you have any advice for a reluctant matriarch who must somehow help her very sad father get through the next few months?