Some months ago, I wrote a few brief remarks to share for the memorial service marking one year since my Mom’s passing, and while preparing to deliver the remarks, I recorded myself reciting them in order to review them before the service. The first attempts with just my voice were helpful in the editing process, but it felt like something was lacking in the delivery, so I decided to try adding a musical component to help set the mood. I eventually chose a selection from the movie, “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams called, “Song on the Beach.” It’s a lovely piano solo from the film score composed by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallet. I posted a link above to the mp3 version of my reading and posted the text below so you could follow along if you wish.
The memories of our lives have a central role in forming who we eventually become, and even though we all realize that memorable experiences aren’t always going to be happy ones, we still naturally tend to suppress those memories which are unpleasant, in favor of those which remind us of happy times. Unfortunately, at certain times, unpleasant memories of trauma or loss can overwhelm us and prevent us from considering the broad scope of our memories, which generally include a more balanced or nuanced collection. We are only human, and must allow ourselves these episodes of being or feeling overwhelmed, recognizing that these feelings will eventually subside with time, although no specific time frame applies to any one of us. Each of us must find our way back in our own time.
As cognitive creatures, we are able to form memories from our subjective experiences, and to utilize those memories for learning and teaching, for calculation and contemplation, for innovation and intuition, and to improve our abilities and increase our level of awareness. Our memories can enslave us or empower us, depending on our interpersonal skills, the degree of support and caring we experience throughout our lives, and often on how well we are able to develop our abilities throughout our lives. Our emphasis can sap the life out of us, or enable us to grow and live abundantly, although frequently it ends up being somewhere in between.
Now that I have introduced the category of “Life,” the next few posts will introduce the role of “Evolution,” in the theory I presented recently, and I hope my readers will be patient while I struggle to find my way to the writing desk. Memory is not just something only humans possess, and it can present both opportunities and obstacles depending on how it is employed in our daily lives, but it clearly can challenge us with difficulties to endure, just as easily as it enables us to enhance our lives. It’s really up to us.
Memory is Feeling
When we go out walking in the brisk, autumn air now, inhaling deeply, listening to the rustling of the leaves that are left, taking in the beauty in every color surrounding us, it stirs our memories of autumns from years ago. The sweetness in the air, the crystal clarity between us and the world, all of the experiences of this time of year, have meaning as a consequence of our humanity. It evokes mystery; it evokes contemplation, and in the most ordinary of ways. We can close our eyes, listen to the sounds, feel the warmth of the sun against our skin, the rising and falling of our chests as we breathe, the air flowing in and out of our lungs, the pulse throbbing in our wrists.
Conventional wisdom, first written by Rene Descartes ( in “Principles of Philosophy,”) said “I think, therefore I am,” but for me, it is more correct to say, “I feel, therefore I am,” in spite of having to think about how we feel. For me, feeling has always been the one indisputable proof of my existence. It FEELS like something to be an individual human person. And our miraculous capacity for memory, which we now know is not like a transcript, or a videotape, or a digital rendering of our experiences, but actually, every time we remember, it is a reconstruction—a recreation in our minds of the way it felt to be in those moments. Our experience of those moments feels like life-I feel, therefore I am alive.
We don’t often stop during the day to consider at length what we are feeling. Our busy lives often prevent us from spending too much time in quiet contemplation of such things, but when we allow ourselves to become quiet, when we are able to pause even for a few minutes of silence, that is when our capacity for memory can move us most deeply.
It’s often during the times when we are at our quietest, when we think of those we love who are no longer with us. They are there still, lingering in memory. It is perhaps, as a memory, that the full measure of the delight we knew with them is clearer than when they were among us. We look back on those experiences now, as a lovely memory, to see that they contain particular elements which we want to hold on to and which mean the most to us. The feeling of connection to those we love does not perish with the body. We continue to feel those connections as strongly as ever.
We are gathered today as a family to honor our memories of our mother, whom we adored, and to whom we are still very much connected. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson of loss. Even though they are no longer with us physically, the soul continues, and the memory of the feeling will not perish.
—more to come—
All of my siblings and I, along with many family members and friends, said a final farewell to the grand lady who brought us into the world today. Over the past several months, as her health began to decline, each of us stepped up the frequency of our visits, and dedicated our energies to bringing her as much comfort and joy as we were able to conjure for her. As difficult as this day felt for us all, our reflections and our wonderful memories which came to us during this time, provided a degree of comfort and joy to us in the process.
As a young boy, many of my earliest memories were of days spent together with Mom. We grew up in the 1950’s, and like many American families of that time, Dad was the provider, and Mom stayed at home to raise the children. But to understand our true origins as a family, we have to go back before the courtship and marriage that led to this arrangement. Born into an emotionally reserved family of modest means, experiencing her own early childhood during the Great Depression, and her teen years during World War II, our Mother had a foundation in her formative years that would be difficult for those of us today to fully appreciate. We always listened attentively to Mom’s stories growing up, and the tales of having very few resources in her youth, of rationing during the war, and of the challenges our parents faced just to court each other and marry, and they all painted a picture of a very different world than the one we all know today. Raised with only one brother, it was her joyful and abundant summer visits to the home of her beloved aunt, who had a house full of children, that instilled in her the notion that she wanted a family just like it. Her devotion to her role as our mother, had its seeds in the experience of her youth.
Mom was our champion, our protector, and our teacher, and she performed all these roles with equal skill and enthusiasm. Throughout my childhood, in spite of my tendency not to “look before I leaped,” my Mom never made me feel as though there was anything wrong with me. Her patience and loving tolerance for a whole variety of trials that I managed to present during my adolescence never resulted in anything more than perhaps a sigh, and an urging to try and give my actions a bit more thought the next time. Her gentle prodding and steady diligence to steer me in a better direction always felt like love, and the image above shows a degree of the good effect it had on me.
Throughout my tender youth, my prevailing memories of my Mom were of her as the most beautiful and happy woman of any that I knew. As a youngster, I obviously had no idea that one of the main reasons for this perception was my emotional and psychological position as her beloved son, but even as I grew and matured, I never lost the sense of how beautiful she seemed in comparison to all the other Moms. Whatever youthful innocence was responsible for coming up with this idea, it never seemed to leave me in all my travels.
When I joined the military at age 20, my Mom cried in the kitchen when I told her about my plans, and she began immediately to prepare a meal for me to eat. Since she already knew more about what it meant to be a soldier than I did, she felt the maternal urge to feed me, since my meals would very likely soon become nothing at all like home cooking. We talked for some time about what it would mean to our family dynamic and how the others would react, but she embraced me and smiled and seemed proud of me. I had no idea that my life was about to change drastically, but in her gentle wisdom, she knew that the time had come to start my own path, and she wished me well.
Of all the many wonderful memories that come to mind as I reflect on a lifetime as her son, one of the most enduring is the memory of her “secret technique,” for making gravy. All of us would marvel at the process from a distance, and even though it seems unlikely to us now that there was any exotic “secret” behind the formula she would use, every Thanksgiving and Christmas, or whenever a family dinner required a “gravy boat,” we were kept at a distance during the “secret” phase of the operation, and even during a recent gathering while she was still able, I snapped this photo of her and nearly got a spoon over my head for disturbing the workings of her culinary method.
In her final days, Mom was in her element. In spite of her weakened state, even with so many visitors coming and going during the day, she rose to each occasion, and frequently dazzled us with her ability to engage and respond to the banter being offered with a nimble wit. We spent many of our last hours with her laughing and dodging her admonitions when we would come up against her fiery will. In one particularly emotional moment on our last day together, as we sat close, Mom put her hands on either side of my face and whispered, “I have loved you since the day you were born.” It was classic Mom right up to the end. By the early evening on that day, it was clear that her body would not be able to sustain her spirit much longer, and as she slept in the wee hours of the morning, she crossed gently over the threshold into the next life.
It has been a mixture of wonderful memories and difficult moments these past few months as Mom began to slip away from us, but we recognized how fortunate we have been to have known such love with our Mom, to have enjoyed a lifetime of benefits as her children, and to be able to live the lives we are living now, in large part, as a result of having her as our Mom. The lasting legacy of our Mother lives inside of each one of us. It is composed of mutual love and respect for one another; a sense of purpose in being a parent ourselves; a devotion to those parts of our lives which matter most to us, and a deep abiding love for our own children. Now it’s up to us to pass it along.