I have a folder on my laptop desktop labeled ‘died.’ In it I keep photos of everyone I know who has died in the past seven years or so. Some I came to know in hospice care, some were friends, some parents of friends, some children of friends.
I keep this folder in part because I don’t want to forget those folks, their names, their stories. I revisit it often, saying their names out loud, remembering something about the person. Three deaths, two funerals and a visit to a friend buried in a cemetery these past few weeks have me thinking a lot about how we remember the dead.
I’m curious about the placing of a headstone, leaving a piece of granite or marble on a spot of land where a body or ashes may be buried—something incredibly durable to mark a fleeting moment in time, a temporary life. Funny, isn’t it, that we choose to keep ourselves here that way? That we feel the need to be memorialized in stone, our names and dates of birth and death, a stamp on this world … I was here.
Having lived across the street from one for a time, I know that not many people visit cemeteries. A few came on a regular basis; usually there was an increase in traffic around Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Otherwise, cemeteries are as quiet as you imagine them to be.
I took a careful look at my ‘died’ folder this morning, shuffled the pics around into categories. There are more men than women and there are men of all ages; there are no women who died in their 20s or 30s, though there are several men in that group. My favorite is the ‘lipstick’ generation of women: moms of my friends and women in their 70s and 80s I knew in hospice—the ones who wore their lipstick faithfully up until the very end, the ones who were well-dressed, well-coiffed, often mothers of lots of kids. They were athletic, elegant, game.
I went to Boston for the funeral of one of these women the other day and during the drive I realized that a lot of the sorrow I was feeling had to do with me. The mom of my college friend, Megan, had died; I had known her mostly in passing: on days of drop-off and pick-up at St. Lawrence; parents’ weekends, summer visits. We knew that generation more formally: I knew Megan’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. Mattaliano and I like that very much, the respect inherent in that language; the clarity of space and roles: they were the adults, in charge and getting things done; we were the kids, having fun, trying to figure it out.
I realized on my trip to Mrs. Mattaliano’s funeral that I was mourning the loss of a part of me as the generation of our parents takes leave of this place and we enter into the spaces they held. I thought of the college girl me and the innocence I wasn’t aware I had then during what was a carefree time of life. I listened to the Grateful Dead on the drive, thinking of the many days Megan and I spent at shows, dancing, camping, being with friends. I thought of the good people we knew, our travels, the dreams we had for ourselves, some of which came to pass, many of which didn’t.
I looked around at the gathering, taking in the new generation of Mattalianos (there are seven kids in Megan’s family; eleven grands): tall young men, athletic girls, moving out into the world. I looked at us, in our 50s now, graying, tired faces, achy bodies, navigating family dynamics as our former guides fall into ill health and die. We are caring for our parents as we watch our kids head out to conquer the world. It’s a funny place to be in the span of a lifetime: right in the middle of two generations leaving us.
The scales of pain and joy leveled when I ran into a high school friend, home from Jasper, Alberta to celebrate his uncle’s 90th birthday. It made me so happy to see his smiling face, pictures of his wife and kids and the beautiful place where they live. Tony maintains the same joie de vivre he had when we were kids, the same perennially good-natured outlook on life. It was a shot of happiness straight to the heart to see him, to be with him for a short time, to hear the stories of his life.
Over breakfast we talked about our own ideas for a funeral, for our eventual time of death. Tony and I are more of the scatter my ashes, have a terrific party school of thought. No headstone for me, thanks anyway. I hope there is a memory or two that gets passed into the next generation, a story told when the dishes are cleared and the whiskey is poured, about MO’B. No doubt it will be something along the lines of … what a nutcase she was, all over the place all the time. And that’s fine, it’s partly true. What I tell my kids is this: when I die be sure to tell them that I loved this life, that I have loved, loved this world and the people in it. Be sure and do that … tell them that I loved being alive, then slide my picture into the ‘died’ folder and keep on truckin’ on.
Peaceful passage, Adrienne Dillon Mattaliano. March 20, 1935-May 27, 2019.