Ever read an obituary that says, “she was the last surviving member of her immediate family?” Which is to say, birth family. My father left home when I was a toddler, and died in 1977. My mother died in 2002 at the ripe age of 92, my older sister at 71 in 2008, and last week, my older brother, age 81. I am now the last surviving member, the memory keeper, and as a widow, the matriarch of a family of ten (three daughters, three sons-in-law, four granddaughters). How did I become the survivor on the island? Probably as the youngest and healthiest of the three siblings. More important, how do I pass on those memories to the next two generations?
My mother and my Aunt Marion, my father’s sister, were both good storytellers. I know so much about my forebears because they told stories. I continued the tradition. My #3 grandchild, Bella, used to sit at my dining room table and say, Tell me another family story, Grandma. I would tell how we missed seeing my husband’s Coast Guard cutter Acushnet on our way to Bar Harbor Maine, only to learn that it was being relocated the next day to the west coast. Or the time my daughters wanted to know if there were birds in the birdhouse on the tree in the backyard. My husband obligingly climbed a ladder to look, a bird flew out into his face, and he fell and landed in a trash can. The answer was yes. Or the time my mother and her sister and brother each inherited $1000 from their grandmother. My mother’s sister bought a car. My mother, age 18, was eager to learn to drive. She decided to borrow Laura’s car and practice one more time before taking her test. She totaled the car, was arrested for driving without a license, had to give most of her inheritance to Laura to buy another car, and didn’t get a license until she was 55 years old. I have interspersed pictures and begats with many of these family memories in a volume called “Stories for My Grandchildren,” printing just 22 copies for daughters, granddaughters, my brother, my sister-in-law, and my nieces and nephews.
Humans told stories long before there was writing. The Druids refused to write things down because they thought it impaired the ability to remember. They spent years memorizing the Druid stories, customs, knowledge, and folkways. Telling stories is good, but so is writing them down. The next generation is not always ready to hear what we have to tell when we are there to tell it, and sometimes the stories are lost. My Aunt Marion died at the age of 96 and even then , I hadn’t asked her all the questions I wanted her to answer.
It is said that even if you don’t believe in the afterlife, you will at least survive in memory until the last person who remembers you dies. That thought is comforting, but too narrow a measure of the power of memory. I believe we all have eternal life in the people whom we have influenced, comforted, supported, and challenged who become better because of us, and lives on in them and those they influence in turn, long after the persons who were the source of their strength and wisdom have been buried in the earth.
We in turn are the bearers of the wisdom and experience of whom we knew, or knew of, and the people who shaped them. By that standard, I was shaped by my grandfather Charles Stewart, architect and motorcyclist who died in 1916 in a motorcycle accident, leaving his wife to raise three young children alone. And by his mother, my great grandmother Alice Munger Stewart, who marched for women’s suffrage and lived long enough to vote, passing on her passion for politics to my mother, me, and my daughters. Even though both of them died before I was born, they live on in me and past me, because I have shared their stories with my children. I do not know who shaped them, but those unknown forebears, some genetic, some not, also live on in me. Alice’s father’s desk, restored to its glory from its creation in the 18940s, sits in my living room as a visible link to that past.
In 1973, my husband and I and our 2-1/2 children were driving back too South Carolina on our way home from Christmas with family in Connecticut when we ran out of gas. Looking like a bunch of hippies, my bearded husband and his pregnant wife and two little girls stood by the side of the road. A local man stopped, had a gas can in his car, and took my husband into town to get gas. He told Carl that just before Christmas he and his son went out to buy a tree and saw a sign in a year saying “free Christmas tree.” He knocked. Yes, the man said, take it. It’s my gift. Pass it on. So our rescuer said to us, I’m passing it on.
So, I invite you to commit yourself to memory keeping and memory sharing. To asking questions of older family members and getting them to tell their stories,. To passing these stories on to the next generations so their stories will not be lost. Life is good, life is rich, life is challenging, life is meaningful. Pass it on!