What I want to discuss today is something far more personal. It’s about my relationship with my late parents and how those relationships are memorialized.
Let’s recap: My mother passed away eight years ago this month. My father passed away a little over a year ago. I had a good relationship with both of them and I regularly wish they were still here, that we might catch each other up on what’s going on in our respective lives. Mom could catch me up on assorted family gossip and I could update her on my life in Chicago. Dad could regale me with oft-told tales about his time in the Air Force and his years in the automotive business, as well as offer his frequently insightful commentary on philosophy and religion.
Upon re-reading the preceding paragraph, it becomes clearer than ever that talking with my parents wasn’t necessarily about what we talked about so much as it was about simply being in contact and serving as mutual touchstones to remind us where we stood in this world. Their absence creates the need to rebuild and redefine some of the underpinnings of my own identity. This is how it has always been; I have no doubt that they contended with this when their own parents died (though we never discussed it in this way), just as every person who loses a loved one must adapt to a world that has suddenly been reshaped.
Somewhere in a suburb north of Detroit, there is a cemetery. A gravestone there bears both of my parents’ names, as well as their dates of birth and death. I have been told, and I have no reason to doubt, that their earthly remains are in caskets buried some feet beneath that marker. I’ve seen photographs of the site, but I’ve never been there myself, nor do I feel any particular need to do so. Oh, I’m not saying it will never happen; maybe I’ll be in town one day and I’ll accompany a sibling who’s headed up there. But I don’t feel as if I’m missing anything. Now maybe I’d feel differently if I were standing there looking at their gravestone in person with my feet standing upon that earth. But I doubt it.
I look at those photos I mentioned and I see nothing, nothing at all that reminds me of my parents. Trees? Open skies? Wide open green spaces? Engraved stones? Far-flung northern suburbs? These have nothing to do with my parents. They were urban kids from the near east side of Detroit. The furthest they lived from there was their last home in Roseville, Michigan, barely three miles from the city limits of Detroit. I would be much more in mind of them if I were traveling down Meldrum or Congress or Parker Street, where their feet took a million steps as they grew into the people who brought me into this world.
More to the point, my parents aren’t in those graves, only their physical remains. And something tells me that neither of them looks very presentable these days. So why would I want to go there?
Some people might say that I should go there to respect them, to honor them, or to remember them. This notion makes no sense to me. I prefer a more meaningful form of respect and honor, which is to measure my words and deeds against what they taught me, and against what they might have hoped for me. As their living progeny, I feel a clear calling to respect and honor the living, which includes me and all those whose lives I might touch.
In terms of memory – well, as I said earlier, there is no memory of them at that gravesite other than an etched stone. The true memory of my parents is around me every day, in ways both tangible and intangible. The tangible reminders are readily apparent. From where I sit at this moment, I can see a lamp my father designed and gave to me and a set of shelves he made for CC. I can see a watch I gave to my mother as a present which was returned to me after her death. There are other items here as well, but those examples will suffice. Oh, and one other exceedingly tangible reminder, which I see every time I look in a mirror.
The intangible memory of my parents is something I carry with me always. It is as close as my skin, and closer than my skin. It can never be forgotten so long as I live. If I have to journey to a windswept cemetery plot that neither my parents nor I ever visited in life in order to be reminded of them, then I think something is seriously out of whack.
There is one other thing I want to make clear: I am not so egotistical as to offer my approach as an ideal; I don’t commend it to others as a superior form of memorializing. I don’t think I should make it my business to tell others how to mourn or how to remember. If a gravesite holds a special meaning or a special power for you, it is not for me to invalidate it, or to presume I know what another person is going through. I can only speak of what holds meaning for me. And for me, what is important is not what I may feel or the words I may deliver while standing at the graveside. No, what is important is what I deliver to the world outside of that cemetery. It is there that I may create a true memorial to my parents’ legacy.