Sunday, September 05, 2010

Every chapter

Returning from St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, I left the interstate to take the route through Muskogee. This was the hometown of my grandparents and my parents. As a child, I spent a week or two there every summer, staying with my maternal grandmother, "Gaga" Adams, and making the rounds to visit all the other relatives who lived in town. Gaga was the last surviving grandparent, and after she died in 1974, I had not been back to Muskogee since her funeral.

I headed straight for the cemetery, where I stopped in the little office to inquire about the location of the graves. First I found my paternal grandparents' grave and the nearby grave of my dad's sister, who died last fall at the age of 98. Then I drove to Gaga Adams' grave.

And then the tears welled up, as all the memories from so many summers washed over me. I remembered the anticipation as we neared Gaga's house, usually after the sun had already gone down. How vividly I remembered that sort of cooing sound she made, as she fussed over us, and how she smelled of face powder and Sweetheart soap as she kissed us. I remembered that we sat around her Formica kitchen table and ate vanilla ice cream with Hershey's syrup. I thought of how the whole family would sit in the little living room, and the grownups would talk, and I would amuse myself or, if my aunt was visiting, too, I would sit on the floor while she brushed my hair. And I thought of those times when Gaga took us out to her beloved Sallie Brown School, the little two room schoolhouse, once a chapel, where she began teaching at the age of 17.

And the tears ran down my cheeks as I realized that when my brothers and I are gone, there will be no more direct memories of these precious people. At some point they would be like others in this cemetery: a name on a headstone at an unvisited grave.

I came back home in a somber mood, weighed down by the thought that the real loss that comes with death is the end of a lifetime of memories, and the end of the living connection with the past. And then I happened upon John Donne's Meditation XVII, which begins, "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated." How those words spoke to me at that moment!


hildegus said...

Galen, I have thought about this, too. Both my parents are still living, but I realize that there are things I would like to know about my family that neither of them can remember or understand. There are stories and family history that I am not sure I remember correctly, and there is no one who can. You are so right "that the real loss that comes with death is the end of a lifetime of memories".

Galen said...

When I was at the cemetery, I realized how little I knew about our family. Next to my grandmother was the headstone for her sister and "Infant Adams," both of whom I had never heard discussed. I guess I was too young to understand if the grownups were talking about it. I wish I had listened better, or had asked questions. I wish I had talked about the family with my mother in her last years, but we couldn't go through photos, because she was nearly blind, and then she had a stroke that severely affected her speech. And now it's too late. It IS a great loss.