I have lived a lifetime in just the last week. I’ve stood by my elderly mother‘s deathbed, keeping vigil as she drew her last breath. My siblings and I have mourned Mom’s passing, celebrated her life, and sorted through her most special treasures. After weeks away, I have finally returned to my own home, to my own life, to try and figure out how to incorporate some of Mom’s treasures into my own!
As we dug ever more deeply into Mom’s life, we discovered things about her and our Dad that we never knew. By the time any of us was old enough to remember, Mom had run into enough limits that she carried a resentment that would hurt her, diminishing her throughout the rest of her life. I often hid during Mom’s tirades, as did several of my siblings (amazing what one learns during a death vigil!). We each knew to challenge Mom with great caution…the price for implying that she might have made a mistake was always unpleasant, even caustic…often not worth the battle!
But these things we already knew. The real surprises were revealed in old photographs, notes, and letters that none of us realized even existed! There were pictures of young adult George and Louise. They loved being together! They loved each other! (None of us ever saw that side of their relationship. Instead, we all have hard memories of bitter words …)
I have long been aware that my love of books and writing was inherited from my Dad. He was an incurable bookworm. Our weekly trek to the public library is one of my favorite childhood memories. The surprise was finding the beautiful notes he wrote to the love of his life, and realizing Mom kept them!! Who knew that Dad was such a romantic? Or that Mom was so sentimental? Mother, following the example of her mother, left notes on many of her treasures. We had errantly assumed that many of her “doodads” would be easy to toss. They were Mom’s memories, after all, not ours. But those small hand-written notes, taped to backs and bottoms, or stuffed inside some orifice…those notes tied us to generations past with old, long-forgotten family stories. Those notes are largely to blame for the many extra boxes of stuff that have found new homes with my siblings and me after the funeral!
So, here I am, at the time of life when I need to be getting rid of things, adding more to my domain and existence instead! As I began to unwrap my “new” treasures, I pulled out a large empty box and began filling it with stuff we no longer use or need. And, I realized that I am falling down on the job! There are a myriad of items in my home that hold wonderful family stories. I need to add my own note to some treasures, telling the stories that go with the memories. My notes are an important of the family narrative too!
The evening of the day Mom died, my siblings and I met together in a nearly empty apartment where Mother had lived happily for more than 7 years. For days and days, we had each picked through Mom’s treasures, sorting, donating, and then, choosing our favorite items…and our ability to make further decisions was exhausted. A few precious heirlooms were relegated to an “Everybody Want This” corner. Numbers were put into Keith’s favorite hat, and we pulled numbers for each item we wanted…until all was parceled out, each sibling with a few very special treasures. There were no arguments…just laughter and tears, stories and agreements about who should really have certain items.
In the last days before Mom died, it seemed as if the soul had gone out of that place: Mom’s bright eyes and always warm (sometimes teary) greeting and embrace were gone, the shell of her body wasting away in an adjacent room. The light and life we knew as “Mom” was gone as the previous generation ended and I became the eldest female in our immediate family. It is an odd place for me to be to be – a supposed matriarch for this family! I am quite certain I am not ready for nor do I really want this “auspicious” role. But I know most of the family stories…and I know it is the stories that help us make family. Sharing the memories that tie us together helps keep us together as family!
Three of Mom’s grandchildren sat around the perimeter of her nearly vacant apartment on that evening only a few hours after Mom’ death. They didn’t gather there in order to get something. Rather, they came to hear the stories we told about the treasures. These special young ones got it right! The Essence of Family! It’s not the stuff, the tangible things, but rather the relationships that are reinforced every time we share a meal, make a memory or tell a story reliving family legend. The soul that Mom brought to that special place is very much alive in each of her children and grandchildren. So, we will continue to tell the stories, aware of our foibles and follies, as well as the unique strengths that are part and parcel of the “Rodgers Clan”. We are making family as surely as did our parents and grandparents and all the ancestors before who brought us to this place and this time.