It’s finally hitting me, maybe since yesterday marked the end to three memorial services and gatherings for a while—I hope. Or maybe it’s a product of aging. It’s unnerving how quickly things can change. We started the summer the way we start any summer. Things were as they’d always been, except that we knew that one of my friends was fighting cancer. Still, she seemed to be doing well, even winning the fight. And even knowing that another friend was on oxygen wasn’t alarming. I felt terrible for her, especially for how it must have limited her movement, and I called her often and talked to her, and I wished her well. But everyone falls apart as they age. Still, it was sad to actually witness it happening to these two beautiful women. The denial was there. It wasn’t supposed to happen to people I love.
And then, bang! Life changed.
First, my second oldest brother passed away, which came out of the blue. A frantic trip to Houston, a memorial service, and then we were back. Then my two dear friends—just like that. Here one day and gone the next. All within a week or two—my friends within 3 days of each other. It’s odd how that happens.
What’s struck me is that I don’t understand the point to it all. It’s been 20 years since my mother and father and my husband's mother and father passed away. They were once an important part of our lives, but time has dimmed that, and the grief we suffered has faded into memory, as I suppose it always does. They’re all buried in the same town—his parents in a different cemetery from mine. It’s been years since we’ve been to visit either one of them. Yet, we remember them quite well. We remember how they looked, how they behaved, the things they accomplished, what they loved and what they didn’t. We still have artifacts and furniture here that once belonged to them, and they are a constant reminder of them. To this day, we still wish we could share some news with them because we know it would make them proud.
Yet, I know this isn’t forever, either.
After we’re gone, and our children and grandchildren are gone, who will remember them? Our heirs will certainly know of their existence because they’ll see evidence in the pictures we’ve left behind. But the day will come when people will look at those same pictures and wonder who they were. It happens now when I see old family photos that haven’t been identified. Recently, a cousin posted a picture on Facebook and asked if any of us knew who it was. No one claimed to remember them at all. The fact that they lived, possibly even raised a family, and that they did what most people do, is lost to us. They’re now little more than a curiosity, non-entities with no known associations.
Marking photos might help. At least the face will have a name, but that’s about it. Even now, we know ABOUT important people, presidents, artists, or musicians, mainly because their histories have been recorded, their pictures preserved, and their creations passed on. But no one actually REMEMBERS them. We can’t remember people we never knew. We can only know ABOUT them.
We can't love them either.
People who haven’t made a name for themselves don’t have the luxury of having their histories preserved for antiquity. And the degree to which their names and possessions are cataloged is often determined by the level of their importance to others. For most of us, our pictures will be gone—buried under someone else’s rubble, possibly tossed out and fading at the bottom of a landfill. In a precious few generations, the family heirlooms that we treasured for so long will belong to someone else, most likely picked up from Goodwill. It’s unlikely the new owners will even wonder who sat in the chair or ate at the table with the beautiful china. Most of us will be little more than a name on a tombstone— assuming we have a tombstone, and assuming the tombstone is still upright and not buried under weeds or the next super-highway. To the people of the future, most of us will never have existed.
Makes you wonder why we live at all. On the other hand, does being remembered make us any less dead? Will it matter that love fades over time? We won't know one way or another, will we? Maybe it's more important to focus on the fact that we have someone who loves us right now, while we're still alive and can love them right back. Who knows? Maybe that’s the point.
It’s a puzzle.
--MDM (October 2019)
If only I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone say, "I wish I could do that." (That, meaning whatever they've secretly admired but never tried.) Whenever I hear this, I can't help but wonder, why not? When I mention it, the answers range from, "I'm too old." and "It's too late." to "I don't have the talent."
Years ago, when I taught piano lessons, parents laughingly told me that their children were nervous before their first lessons because they didn't know how to play piano. At first glance, that seems strange, but in truth, it isn't. It's human nature not to want to be judged harshly; and starting any new endeavor automatically puts us on the bottom rung where we're the most vulnerable to criticism. I've often wondered if this isn't what stops adults from pursuing their dreams: a fear that people will think they're pretending to be something they're not and then laugh because they're not yet accomplished. (I've had those fears.)
As for my piano students, I generally pointed out to them that simply by being there, they had become part of an elite group. Like them, every accomplished artist, composer, sculptor, scientist, marathoner, or whoever was once a struggling novice--even Leonardo. They took that all-important first step and then worked until it paid off. That's not to say that they always produced priceless works of art or even the greatest symphonies, even after they became famous; they didn't. But, that never stopped them. There's an old saying: For every work of art that sees the light of day, there are generally about forty hiding in the closet--or crumpled and tossed into the wastebasket. The secret is that Leonardo and people like him closed their ears to the critics and kept going.
As I see it, age isn't a factor either. The only valid cutoff to learning is death. Grandma Moses didn't start painting until she was in her seventies. I once read that a strong desire to do something could be a latent talent trying to get our attention. I don't know about that, but I do know that if the desire is strong enough, and that if a person actually takes that first step and keeps at it, they will succeed. And while most of us will never become another Leonardo, Einstein, or Beethoven, we absolutely will reach a point where we'll please ourselves. In his book, The Naked Ape, Desmond Morris calls this "functionlust." It's working hard at something until you become skilled enough to enjoy doing it. You then do it because you're good at it, and you keep getting better. I believe this.
I also believe that the time spent making your wishes come true is worth the effort. There's an intrinsic joy in realizing that you're pretty good at the thing you've worked so hard to achieve. Even if you live to be over a hundred years of age, as Grandma Moses did, and even if you never become rich or famous, at least you can look back on your life without the regret that you never even tried. In my book, that's priceless. .
--MDM (Feb 2019)
I remember the first turkey I ever cooked. It came after quite a few years of marriage. My husband and I always went to our parents' homes for the holidays; but that year, with our children old enough to be excited about the holidays, we chose to remain at home. We invited both sets of parents to have dinner with us. No pressure there.
I had a vague notion about how to cook a turkey; I had seen my mother do it many times. How hard could it be? Well, I soon learned that there was more to it than throwing a turkey into a pan and turning on the oven.
My first task was to purchase the turkey. How big? What brand? With butter or without? Fresh from the farm/forest/aviary? Frozen? Had my mother faced these decisions? She had never mentioned it, but I'm sure she must have. My childhood recollection is that a turkey always miraculously appeared at the table--no sweat.
As I agonized over the frozen birds at a local grocery store, I must have looked as lost as I felt, because an elderly man approached me and asked if I needed help. I remember him very well, even after all these years. He was tall, though a bit stooped. He had a full head of silver hair and blue eyes that crinkled when he smiled at me. They put me at ease in an instant.
He guided me through picking the best turkey for the number of people we were having for dinner and proceeded to share with me his secret for producing a succulent bird I could be proud of. It was a simple secret, and while I'm sure there are thousands of such secrets out there, but being the novice that I was at that time, its simplicity was an early Christmas gift. He told me to place two celery stalks and one small onion inside the cavity of the bird and then add a touch of salt. He said to wrap the turkey in foil to keep the juices and flavors in. Before taking it out, remove the foil so the turkey could brown.
When the big day rolled around, I was proud of my first turkey, and I received many compliments about its taste and tenderness. For me, that was huge.
I never saw that kind, generous man again, and as we never introduced oursleves to each other, I never found out who he was. I never forgot him, though. I think about him every Thanksgiving when I prepare the turkey for my family. He'll be immortalized in my memory forever. It's sad that he'll never know what a gift he gave to me that year and what a wonderful legacy he left behind.
--MDM (Nov 2015)
It bothers me that things in my life appear to be slipping away. Like viewing a timeline, I gaze into my past, trying to hang on to where I've been. Yesterday is still fairly sharp, the day before that as well; but weeks, months, and years have faded into the mist.
It's subtle, as though it's on a sliding scale that appears to be adjusting itself as I age--not to my advantage. The mist creeps closer. Some things I thought I would never forget have slipped away--I suppose while I was looking at something else. Names of people I once pulled to mind with no difficulty take longer, if they come at all. I stand in the grocery store smiling stupidly at old acquaintances as they chatter on, asking about my children, or wondering how many grandchildren I have. Some of these people I haven't seen in years. I haven't forgotten them, only their names. I'm always pleased when they stop to speak to me, happy to talk to them, but pray they don't notice that I haven't called them by name. Later, as I dig through the debris in my head, the names often return, and I vow that if I see them again, I'll make it up to them. I want them to know that I remember.
I'm often intrigued when I have to perform archeological digs to bring information back, as though the events of my past have settled one on top of the other in layers like the mantel on the earth. They sink from view, and unless I do something to bring them back, they decay into vague memories, or worse, a page in ancient history. It aggravates me that this is all done without my consent. It seems grossly unfair. Knowledge is cumulative. What good is it if we can't remember?
I must confess, however, that pulling obscure facts from my past often gives me a perverse pleasure. It's not the actual deed or event, though that's pleasant, too; it's that I feel I've cheated the aging process, dug beneath the mantel and disturbed a layer of dust. It makes me believe that things are still firing in my head as they should, slower, perhaps, but that's okay—the alternative horrifies me. I'm not afraid of death. It's the possibility of losing of my mind that troubles me.
He lay in his underwear on a bare mattress beside the only open window in the room. He was spread-eagled and bare-chested, offering as much body surface as possible to anything that moved, almost wishing the mosquito buzzing in the darkness would come closer, at least close enough that he could feel the air stirring around its wings. Sweat rolled down his side and disappeared into the mattress, adding to the growing pool of moisture beneath him.
A breeze, one tiny puff, was all he needed.
He closed his eyes, remembering how he had once dreamed of making things happen with his mind. He'd employ the ninety percent of his brain he never used and generate his own breeze. He'd let the energy from his body coalesce and throw it into the ether, creating ripples that would move outward in concentric circles from his body. It would glide over the mattress and spill to the floor like a mountain waterfall, landing in churning clouds of mist. Then it would spread across the carpet, sweeping away the magazine insert that had fallen from his MacAddict and crashing against the walls before clawing its way to the ceiling.
A moment would follow that had always fascinated him, one where minds reconsider, where conflicting paths are deciphered and choices are made.
The pendulum would change directions and nothing would be the same again. The wave would slide down the wall and catch the card, sweeping it beneath the bed, and he
would feel the blessed relief of moving air.
As he wiped the perspiration from his upper lip, he heard a sound. He turned to stare at the beads on the lamp his Aunt Ethel had given him on his sixteenth birthday. They were moving. A new sensation, faint but definite, touched the hair on his arm and chest. His breath caught.
"Evan, I'm leaving the fan in here tonight," Mama said from out of the darkness. "Don't kick it over when you get up to go to the bathroom."
Seconds later, she was gone.
I find it humbling to reach an age where misspoken words and unintended deeds, never rectified,
Suddenly invade my dreams;
Where little things, never considered before, seize my thoughts in quiet moments,
Reflecting back to me a person I've never seen before--
One others have known for years.
The morning sun streams through the sunroom windows, finally open after two or three days of unseasonable heat. The scent of the neighbor’s wisteria permeates the air with a sweetness that would soothe even the dreariest of moods. At the back of the yard, azaleas sway beneath a fully leafed maple tree, transformed into stained glass by the rising sun. A spectrum of birds take turns at the feeder, only feet from where I sit. Squirrels and rabbits vying for their rightful piece of real estate chase each other across the dew-covered lawn.
Our two dogs are at my feet on the new carpet, unconcerned by the drama taking place beyond the open windows. The occasional eye pops open when their sensitive ears catch a stray sound, one that my ordinary human ears have clearly missed.
My coffee cup is full. The newspaper is in my lap. I’m ready to start the day.
The check is in the mail.