They say that even when someone dies, they aren’t fully gone; they live on in the memories of those who knew them. I think that the opposite is also true. When someone dies, they take some of our memories with them.
In the past few days, two people I know died. They weren’t especially close friends; they were so much older than I that to claim friendship would be impertinent. But they were both people I admired and now they are gone.
The first, George, was a respected business and philanthropic leader in our community. He and his family have been loyal clients and friends of my husband’s family for many, many years. He treated me with unfailingly courtesy in the more than 25 years I was privileged to know him. I would be hard pressed to think of someone who better personified the term “gentle man”.
The second, Marthe, was from my hometown – the mother of an old friend of mine from grade school. She was French/Canadian and, with her marvelous accent, always seemed much more exotic than all the other moms. Her son and I were in high school French class together. Ever afterwards, whenever she saw me (usually in church) she greeted me with “Bonjour, Margaret!”, the lead-in to an incomprehensible question in French that I would gamely try to interpret.
But my memories are hazy and I forget details.
- Did she call me Margaret or was it Marguerite?
- What was the name of that fancy restaurant my boyfriend Lyle took me to in college, when we were celebrating our anniversary?
- Did my brother Pat and I implement, even once, our plan to go running every morning that summer before he went off to college? Or was it on the very first day we agreed, sheepishly and groggily, “to hell with it”, and just went back to bed?
I can’t remember these things and I will never be able to pin them down because those who shared the experiences with me are gone. All gone.
The landscape of our own lives is changed forever when people we know die.
When a family member or someone else we love is gone, the changes are immediate and obvious. They stick out like a new highway suddenly plunked down in the middle of town. But all losses, big and small, have their impact on us. It’s just a matter of degrees.
A cousin…the house next door is torn down. The woman who sang alto in the choir… a new grocery store goes up. The guy who sat 2 rows away on the commuter train, every morning for the last 15 years…Elm St. is closed. The accountant who called with a cheery, cheesy, “time to meet with your friendly tax man!” every April 1st …a new school goes up. Ernest Borgnine… the State Theater closes. And so it goes, on and on.
This is, I think, the reason that so many elderly people find it hard to keep touch with the modern world. It’s not the gigantic leaps in technology, changes in music or fashion or political regimes that come and go.
It’s the loss of people.
The landscapes of our lives are made up of human markers – some major, some minor. Without these human landmarks, life is hard to navigate and the familiar starts to look foreign.
As I get older, the previous generation is passing from the landscape at a dizzying, rapidly accelerating pace. Soon the topography won’t be recognizable as we, ourselves, become that older generation.
Each of our lives is a pebble in the pond, making waves that overlap all the other pebbles around us. Just how big that impact is we may never be able to gauge here and now. Maybe only in the next life will we gain the perspective to fully do so.
p.s. Lest you think I’m all somber reflection today, know that George welcomed his first, little great-grandchild into the world a mere week before his passing. Not all the changes to our landscapes are losses.
Rest in peace, George and Marthe.