One day, someone is here. And the next, they aren’t. And you find yourself Googling: how to write an obituary.
My Grandma Rosemary died over two years ago. Just a day before her 88th birthday. She lived a long life! That’s true. She clapped for me at my college graduation, danced at my wedding, saw my husband and me move into our first home, and hold my daughter, her great granddaughter. That’s a blessing, to be sure.
And still, it’s sad. She had dementia, so for the past five years, I’m not sure what she remembered. One day Dan and I took her out for dinner at Unos with Kate. I could tell that several times that evening, she wasn’t sure who she was with. She knew we were someone connected to her. But I don’t think she remembered who we were.
Yet, a few days before she died, we talked on the phone, and she recalled Kate, seemed to know who she was, remembered being with her.
I’m fortunate I knew Rosemary for 30 years. That’s a long time. She was my best friend at a time when I didn’t like myself very much, years filled with angst and self-hatred. Rosemary would let me drive her car and took me shopping and out to lunch and listened to me rattle off a list of grievances and injustices I believed my parents made me suffer.
She was always up for fun, especially when we could be conspiratorial and not tell my parents. We ate ice cream in her bed. I tried on all her jewelry. I’d comb through her tchotchke drawer and ask if I could have that little ceramic elephant or tiny gold ring after she died. “Sure,” she’d say. She taught me how to needlepoint on her rickety old dining table with the mismatched chairs. She had this one dining plate that spun; something about the bottom was uneven. We kept saying we were going to toss it out, but we never did. And inevitability one of us would end up with “the funny plate” at every meal. After her Boston Terrier, Cricket, died, I was her co-conspirator in her next dog purchase. Somehow we ended up driving to a farm in Fredericksburg and purchased not one, but two, Boston Terrier puppies. Litter mates would entertain each other, we reasoned. One Christmas Dan and I bought her a giant pack of cordless phones from Costco since she kept breaking her current set by leaving them in the fridge or outside or throwing them away. When we came over to set them up, she’d squirreled them away in a drawer, saying she would save them for another time.
I hold onto these memories like a vise grip because I can feel her starting to fade away. I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife, but I do believe that keeping someone in your memory is how they live on spiritually, if not physically.
I’m a big story teller. At every family gathering, I start the story telling going. Remember that time when…Mom, tell the story about…Who remembers how…
This story telling keeps our family narrative alive. I want the kids to hear where they’re from. I want them to know the past, even thought it’s not perfect. There are no family secrets. The good, the bad, the funny, the sad, I want it out on the table. This is who we are, this is where we’re from, this is what we’ve learned, this is how history should not repeat itself.
This is where you’re from.
The other day, in an attempt to entertain the kids, I started cleaning out my office and involved the kids in organizing and tossing out stuff. At some point, they came across a book of clips I put together from my high school and college journalism days.
What are these?!
Oh, those are just articles mommy wrote for the newspaper.
The real newspaper?!
Umm…yeah kind of.
And what’s this?
Oh, that’s an award I won.
An award?! Like a trophy? For what?
Hmm…that’s when I was selected as high school journalist of the year. It’s like a trophy for writing.
And what’s this? Oh, it’s a book about me?!
Yeah, I put together that scrap book when you were a baby. See, that’s when I was pregnant with you. And that’s our old house. And there are Susie and Papa meeting you. And your Dad holding you for the first time.
They say quietly flipping through my high school paraphernalia and those homemade scrapbooks filled with the short history of their lives. The interest they showed in our family’s history reminded me of why I’m always trying to keep in touch with our past.
Mama, what did you like when you were a little girl? When did you get your ears pierced? Did you like school when you were my age?
I love these questions. Sometimes I tell her I don’t know, so we call Susie and ask her. Sometimes I do know, and I share the story. I bring up Rosemary frequently, talking about how special she was to me, just like her Susie and Meme are special to her.
I don’t know about death. But I know about the people death leaves behind and how to honor that death by keeping them in the forefronts our mind, while not assuaging that loss, keeps that important life linked to the present. We need to know where we’re from so we’re connected to who we are.