“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal,
Love leaves a memory no one can steal.”
—From an old Irish headstone
In Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s novel “The Labyrinth of the Spirits,” a mysterious writer, Julian Carax, writes these words in a last note to a young friend: “Never forget that we exist so long as someone remembers us.”
When we die, we may leave behind worldly possessions for those we love—property, money, a brooch, an antique Mercedes, a breakfront passed from generation to generation, albums of photographs, an attic filled with the broken toys of childhood, and clothing out of fashion for 40 years. Except for the impoverished, the homeless, and the truly lonely, we bestow on those closest to us the trap and clutter of our lives, some of it valuable, some inconsequential but shot through with personal meaning, some bound for the Goodwill store or the dump.
But the most precious gifts we can give to the living are memories.
For years, I worried that growing old might turn me a curmudgeon, cynical, pessimistic, embittered, and that after my death, others would recollect me as a sour, sarcastic grump. My grandfather became such a man, often ready with some snarky comment, some verbal cut that left wounds on the heart. Another older man of my acquaintance, retired from the military, was so vile to others, including his wife, that he made Grandpa look like Pollyanna. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but the possibility of being remembered as a grouch like these two, or other old guys I had met, frightened me.
One early morning, I was drinking coffee on the porch of my apartment, when this familiar apprehension once again returned. A black mood descended on me as I looked down onto Asheville’s Cumberland Avenue, brooding on the possibility of whether old age might transform me into a killjoy. Then, this thought hit me: “Hey, you’re over 60. You’re old, and you haven’t become a grouch.” Readers may laugh, but the joy and relief brought by that revelation spangled the rest of my day. I was walking on air.
Of course, like many of us, I have done harm to others, sometimes committing irreparable wrongs, transgressions that allowed for no means of direct reparation. In these cases, I could only learn from my mistakes, find my way back onto the right path, and strive to become a better person.
So some may hate me after I die, some may mark my ignoble deeds, but never, I think, will I live on in the minds of others as a grump.
Which brings me to the self-addressed question that prompted this article: How can we bless our loved ones, particularly the young, with good memories? How can we offer them those gifts that might bring them comfort when they are in need of comfort, laughter when they are in need of laughter? How can we impart fragments of ourselves to others that might inspire and guide them?
Attitude, presence, and effort strike me as vital to that attempt.
Our attitude toward the world at large can leave an indelible stamp on the memories of others. We have all known older people who exude a sense of delight in life and who share that delight. We have also known older people whose pessimism is as bitter and black as a bad cup of coffee.
For me, the worst are those who say, “I would never want to raise a child in today’s world.” There’s an attitude I can’t afford, not with four children, their spouses, and a growing platoon of grandchildren.
No—for these offspring, for the students I once taught, and for the young employees in my local coffee shop, I prefer to rebut the pessimism so prevalent in our culture, particularly in our media, with a modicum of good cheer, particularly about the future. We needn’t become wild-eyed optimists to offer others encouragement and to point out the pleasures of living, even the small delights such as a cup of green tea, a good movie, a well-prepared chicken soup.
As we face the pain and sorrow of old age, ranging from stiffened joints to the loss of beloved friends and family members, we may find our stock of good cheer dwindling at times. Those are the occasions when we put on a mask, offering others light instead of darkness, hope instead of despair, while we face the tough task of replenishing our depleted interior supplies.
To leave echoes of who we were also required presence. I know a woman who spends part of her week visiting her centenarian mother in an assisted living home and another two days of that week babysitting grandchildren. In the first instance, she becomes the repository of her mother’s memories; in the second, whether she realizes it, she passes along those memories and her own to her grandchildren. The toddlers exhaust her, but each day when she goes home, she leaves behind a piece of her soul in those little ones, music that will reverberate in them long after she has become dust.
Finally, we must make an effort to create memories. We may live in Oregon and our children in South Carolina, but we can overcome these hindrances of geography through phone calls, emails, texts, and written letters. We can send presents when they least expect it. We can plan annual get-togethers. By these gestures, we maintain those lines of communication that build recollection.
At ClassicalPoets.org, we find these lines from T.M. Moore’s “In Mad River:”
“For him, it will suffice if there remains
a legacy, known by a few, who see
in him what they themselves might like to be.”
If we endeavor to make it so, we can bequeath such a legacy, a gift to sustain and uplift those we have loved.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.