Poster collage of the family of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley
Family & Friends


“I love lemonade!” Tommy declared, as he walked out of the restaurant where we’d just finished eating.

“You love lemonade, just like your Grandpa Tom,” I said.

My dad laughed. Thirty minutes prior, when we were waiting in line to order, my dad confessed to me, “I let them get a fountain drink when we come here without you.” I told him it was fine with me if they got something sweet to drink, and I let the kids order what they wanted. Tommy chose lemonade, just like my dad.

So as we exited the restaurant, we both laughed as Tommy took the last sips of his lemonade and danced on the sidewalk. We talked about the taste of lemonade – sweet and sour at the same time. Austin looked at Tommy and asked me, “what’s in lemonade, anyway? Just lemons?”

“And sugar,” I said.

“I love sugar!” Tommy said.

“Just like your Grandpa Tom!” I said again, and then we all laughed.

“Yep, yep, yep,” Tommy said, “just like Grandpa. I like having a grandpa! Not everyone has a grandpa. We used to have Shawn, when I was three. But now we have Grandpa Tom.”

The big kids were quiet. They know that my dad is not a substitute for Shawn, but it’s still confusing for Tommy. You’d think, as a five-year-old, he’d start to understand the unfairness of it all.

But he really doesn’t get it. Case in point: last week he had his first homework assignment: make a poster for “family day” in kindergarten. Use photos of your family and decorate a poster to share. Claire and Austin had to do this assignment when they were Tommy’s age, but of course, Shawn was still alive. So I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I printed out dozens of photos of both our family with Shawn and our family without Shawn. I decided I’d let Tommy pick, so one afternoon I spread the photos out on the floor and told him he would need to cut out a few for the poster.

Immediately, he saw a photo, one that’s from about three years ago, of him sitting on his dad’s lap. “This one!” he said, pointing to it. “I’m going to cut it out.”

He took his time cutting around the image, and then chose a few more. He made sure to pick one of just me and him (I loved that) and also one of Grandpa Tom doing the dishes (which, I have to say, was an amazingly appropriate image to pick of my dad.) When it came time to label the photos, he wrote his own name, and Claire’s and Austin’s too. “But you write the other names,” he said to me.

I proceeded slowly. “Okay, so this is a picture of me. I’ll write ‘mom’ next to it. And then there’s a picture of Grandpa Tom.”

“Put ‘Grandpa Tom’ under it,” Tommy instructed. So I did.

“And here’s a picture of you and your dad,” I said, pointing to the first image he selected.

“Yes,” he said, “so write ‘Shawn’ for that one.”

I paused. “Should I write ‘dad’ too?”

“Okay,” he said. “That’s our first dad. Now we have our other dad, Grandpa Tom!”

“Well,” I said, stalling for the best words, “you always have your dad, Shawn. He will always be your dad. Grandpa Tom is your grandpa, and we are lucky to have him.”

Tommy looked at me for a long time. Maybe he was trying to figure out why I was so concerned with semantics. He certainly was not emotionally conflicted in the way that I felt in that moment. He finished the poster and demanded I hang it on the wall until he had to take it to school.

That night, I laid in bed and thought about the way that Tommy was understanding his young life. I thought back to our trip to the restaurant earlier that week, when Tommy had ordered lemonade just like my dad.

As we were leaving the restaurant that day, Austin was walking alongside his brother. He was listening to him talk about their father and their Grandpa Tom. Tommy, ever the observer, looked down at his drink and said, “Grandpa Tom always gets me lemonade.”

Austin looked at his little brother, and gently touched his shoulder. “Tommy,” he said, “Dad used to get us lemonade too. Or root beer.”

“Oh!” Tommy said back, “I like root beer too.”

“Ya,” Austin said, playfully nudging his brother, “it’s yummy too.”

They smiled a bit at each other, and we got in the car to go home.

Dad. Grandpa. Different, of course. But to Tommy, and for all of us, our complicated family is just our family. Imperfect and perfect, happy and sad.

Bittersweet. Just like the lemonade.


  • Rachel

    My son is newly seven and was barely five when my husband died. He makes comments a lot about getting a new dad if I marry someone else, and I say the same thing as you- that his dad will always be his dad, even though I understand what he means about having a dad present and alive in his family. I’m glad that so many families look different these days, even if my kids don’t know many other peers who have lost a parent . I had to smile at the root beer comment because my husband used to get root beer for our kids too. P.S. As a pre k teacher, I am genuinely impressed with Tommy’s cutting skills!

    • Marjorie

      Haha – I love that you love his cutting skills! And yes, I’ve written about this a lot – how important it is that there are other families out there that aren’t super traditional. Here’s one that I wrote that you might like:

  • Henry

    Your family may not be intact, and you may know it is incomplete, but as a family it is functioning beautifully ♥

  • Gabe

    Looking at these pictures made me both happy and sad, reading your post did the same thing. Kids seem to be better at understanding that we can feel both simultaneously, maybe because they aren’t as focused on defining every emotion as it comes. Love you, Marjorie!

  • Charles Hall

    Hi Marjorie,
    I just read one of your blogs about your disappointing experience with internet dating sites and how you deleted all your profiles. Did they stay deleted. Did you give up on that in all forms. I have been wary of all things internet and so am only now one month into being on Facebook and a week into having a profile out on Elite Singles. Today I felt like deleting it all and just working through my real-life social network. It may be smaller but it feels safer and a better bet. At church and my sons school, I can vet people before giving them my profile.
    Thanks for sharing your experience. It makes me feel less alone. I lost my 52 year old wife Althea to breast cancer in 2018 after a first diagnosis and treatment in 2015. She started experiencing debilitating fatigue and problems using her hands late in 2017 and then pains in her legs which were treated as sciatica until she developed dementia on March 4th and we landed in the hospital and found the tumor in her brain. She was dead a month later. We lived everyday of the last three years of her life as if it were her last. One day close to the end, I told her that I was never going to remarry, and she said,” No Charles. I didn’t ask for that. You should be with someone, you must. “ My processing of grief began with her diagnosis. She had a stage 2, aggressive form of triple negative breast cancer and the sword of reoccurrence hung over our heads until it fell. She never fully regained her former vitality after treatment. And I feared for the worse as I felt the life force leaving her.
    I am older than you. Sometimes I wonder if I need to have another great love. It’s hard to see that anything else doesn’t carry a huge risk of disappointment. Just having a bad day. I know the best years are ahead of me. I’m looking forward to my sons wedding and being his father and a grand dad someday. Just not sure. I shouldn’t just embrace my solitude and my artistic pursuits. I am a musician and poet, maybe It’s time to write. I certainly have something to write about.

    • Marjorie

      I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers about finding love again. I don’t know if it’s possible for me, or for you, but I know it’s been possible for others. I also know that my dad never remarried, and never wanted to. I think it’s one of those things that you figure out day by day – something that isn’t always so clear in the early stages of grief. I am not convinced I will re-marry, even though I was only 38 when Shawn died.

  • Carmelita

    I don’t know. I think it is wonderful that Tommy has made that transition to his “other dad “. He seems so comfortable with that, which is a tribute to your father and how your whole family operates. I think as he gets older and the other kids bring up memories of Shawn, Tommy will get that understanding of having had a dad, a terrific father, who died. In the meantime thank God he is so happy with it all. I love your perceptions About Tommy. What a wonderful personality he has!