This is a first in a series of columns.
When my mother was facing death, she expressed the fear that when she was gone, “There will be no one left who knew my mother. The memory of her will be lost completely.”
It was true that I had never met my grandmother. She’d died in 1941, five years before I was born. But my mother was a great storyteller, and when I was a kid, my mother used to tell my brother and me — as bedtime stories — tales from her childhood, in many of which her mother figured vividly. Those stories made my long-departed grandmother seem like a living presence, someone whose character was stamped into my memory.
With those vivid, if vicarious, memories in mind, I promised my mother I’d keep her mother’s memory alive, that I’d observe the anniversary of her mother’s death just as she had all those many years since her mother had died too young.
So now, every year, on March 2nd, I email my own (grown-up) children to remind them of this ancestor, this mortal human who was a loved one in our family.
(A loved one who, though lost, my mother had kept alive not only with those childhood bedtime stories, and not only by recruiting me to carry the memory, but also having completed a novel — as her own final big creative project — based on her mother’s life, titled Annushka, the manuscript of which is in the hands of my three children.)
It is an inescapable part of the human condition that we all lose people we love. Even if we are fortunate enough never to have to bury any child of ours, the natural and inevitable turnover of the generations compels us to deal with losing our parents, and grandparents.
While much of that loss is inevitable, in some ways it is possible to keep our lost loved-ones “alive.” (As is illustrated by the story of the chain of remembrance that stretches stretching — thus far — from my long-dead grandmother to my children.)
Kept alive (in some meaningful way) — if the people in the family do their part to make it happen.
I was reminded of this lately by a deeply meaningful experience that my wife, April, has had regarding her mother, who died back in the late 90s.
Only recently, there came into April’s hands a packet of stories her mother had written. As April read the stories — many of them drawn from the life of the family in which April had grown up — she suddenly felt her mother’s presence again, quickened in her consciousness.
The depictions of family life revealed her parents young again, as they were when she was a child. She even got to know her parents, and their marriage, in some new ways.
Reading these stories — feeling again in contact with the parents she’d loved and lost — moved April to tears.
These stories turned out to be an “Heirloom” — defined as something passed down the generations that the generations of the future will experience as something of value.
A gift, that enhances the experience of the descendants.
April’s mother didn’t write those stories to be a gift to her daughter. She wrote them for reasons of her own. Nonetheless, what a great gift they proved to be, for they restored — in a way and to a degree that matters — something cherished whose loss had grieved.
For April, as the first generation of the future, the Heirloom brought a “lost loved-one alive.”
For later generations, the Heirloom can still be a gift—something of positive value from a Valued Ancestor. (For these stories, I can imagine such future generations, as our son is getting a copy and — knowing the kind of fellow he is — I would imagine him seeing these stories to be a gift to be passed on to his descendants as well.)
The present generation looks at the family both backward and forward in time, being the recipient of the Heirlooms from the ancestors and potentially being the creator of Heirlooms for their descendants.
The present generation might begin tackling that meaningful creative task – of fashioning an Heirloom — by asking the question:
“What might I pass along that will be experienced — by those I will someday leave behind, and those to come — as something of value?”
How worthwhile a task this could be to undertake — how much an expression of love for future generations it could me — is suggested by how meaningful it proved to be for April to get that Heirloom of her mother’s stories.
And what a creative opportunity and challenge it could be for so many people is suggested by the vast range of forms an Heirloom might take, from a finely crafted cabinet to a Memoir.
Those two big sources of meaning — i.e. how moving it can be to reconnect with the lost loved one, and how wide open is the field for creative endeavor — could provide inspiration enough.
But then, when I discovered upon reflection how this whole business of forming positive bonds among the family generations turns out to lead to some very deep waters about our humanity, I found myself unexpectedly embarked on what I’m calling “The Heirloom Project.”