Who Will Preserve the Pieces?
Unimaginable is the word my nephew used to describe it. I’d learned the sad news earlier in the day from my brother. We decided it best not to tell Mom until after her non-negotiable doctor appointment.
Once home, comfortably seated on her couch and finishing her McDonalds McDouble, my brother called with the news – Mom’s beloved daughter in law, Liz, had passed away very unexpectedly at the young age of 66.
Mom’s response was overwhelming grief and a sad statement of betrayal; “It’s not supposed to happen this way.” She was referring to a child dying before their parent.
Although not by blood, Liz had been like a daughter to Mom for 45 years, having met my oldest brother, Gig, in high school. The sudden, unexpected loss of Liz was particularly hard on Mom, as Gig had also died young, at age 57.
Shortly after hearing the news, Mom called her oldest grandson to console him. Watching her on the phone, I saw a grandmother consoling her grandchild, but I also saw a woman seeking consolation herself, from one of the few people on earth who would feel the loss of Liz as greatly as she did.
Whereas I was able to sadly accept that my brother and sister in law had “died young,” my mother was mourning the loss of her children; two people who would always be her babies, even at 57 and 66. A mother’s children are just not supposed to predecease her. Period.
It was clear that Mom needed some mothering herself, so I joined her on the couch, held her hand, and stroked her hair while we talked about heaven and the belief that Gig and Liz are there now, together once again.
Back home, I contemplated what it must feel like to lose a child at Mom’s age. It’s tragic when young parents lose a child to accident or illness, but somehow, it seems we’re prepared to hear those stories; as devastating and sad as they may be, they are also statistically more common.
The implications are different when an aging parent loses an adult child. Losing a young child, parents mourn the what-ifs and now-nevers. Losing a child over 50, a parent thinks in terms of who-will-?
Historically and sequentially, one generation is supposed to pass family traditions and lore on to the next through their children. Mom has always been a huge storyteller... persistent, consistent, accurate, articulate, detailed and determined to get it all out. At almost 92, she has no shortage of tales to tell... over and over. Although sometimes irritating (Aargh... I’ve heard that one a thousand times Mom!), I recognize that it’s the repetition that keeps them “fresh” for future telling.
Gig was always Mom’s best audience, offering a genuine interest in family history from an early age. And now he and Liz were both gone. As I sat watching Mom on the phone, I wondered - what happens when the generational link is broken... when the conveyors of all things family are no longer there to convey?
I catastrophized this question out to the improbable future... 2 kids down, 3 to go. What if all Mom’s kids die before her? Who will spread the family gospel? What about the legacy? The stories? The family lore?
But then I remembered.
About 6 years ago, Mom created a “book” for each of her four children. These 3 ring binders hold multiple plastic sleeves that are literally and figuratively protecting every piece of history ever written about our (very) colorful and historically relevant family.
Much to her dismay, Mom’s book did not receive the accolades or acknowledgment it so fully deserved at the time of gifting; at least not by me... her hard work relegated to the bowels of my bookshelf. At the time of receipt, I knew this beautifully assembled tome was full of important, - no... VITAL - information about our family, but I had yet to understand its significance.
The breadth of Mom’s book spans hundreds of years. It contains every tale ever told about my grandparents, my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents. It holds vintage photos of solemn distant relatives, each carefully researched and labeled... and pictures of historical family homes... newspaper clippings of charitable acts and human rights activities proffered by family members... and so much more.
The significance of Mom’s book is now clearly evident to me. This blue binder with a picture of my great-grandfather on the front, will be the silent conveyor of my family’s past, to my future families. If guarded carefully, it can be a useful resource to fill in the gaps for generations to come.
I shared my epiphany with Mom... her grief still palpable but contained. Telling her that I now view her blue binder as the family bible, as well as a coveted possession, she smiled; filled with gratitude that her hard work and love of family would endure... that it would forever mean something to me and generations to come... happy to know that, no matter how dismissive we may have seemed at the time of telling, her stories and those of other family members are valuable... that her book represents a tangible validation of lives well lived... and that I am grateful she had the forethought to put all those puzzle pieces in one place.