Mind Matters — Bittersweet Memorial

Ever wonder how your life would be had you taken a different path? It could be as simple as buying a house a mile away from another in the same town, or it could be as complex as choosing a school three thousand, rather than three, miles away, marrying one person versus another.

Reflections on life choices—and then the inevitability of aging and death too—became figural for me this past weekend. A friend’s memorial service/celebration took my husband and me back to Pittsburgh where we went to graduate school. It was also where our two children were born.

We arrived the night before the memorial that was to take place in a Unitarian Church. Not a somber gathering actually, although there was much sadness and some tears. My friend was a bit of a wise Yoda figure who was full of creativity and impishness. So to a backdrop of photos of her wearing hats and bright colors in many sunny places and her goofing with husband, friends, and family, those same people read poetry, sang songs, remembered and re-collected her spirit. In the midst of this, we saw people we hadn’t seen in thirty years. We had all aged, some healthier and better than others, but isn’t it funny how the essence, the soul, of a person shines through the weight and the wrinkles and we recognize each other and we are taken back in time.

Our travel back in time continued after the memorial. We drove to the first house we lived in in Pittsburgh, a grand old Victorian that sold for a song when we were mortgaged to it. The neighborhood at that time was teeter tottering and after several break-ins, we decided to move out of the city. We hoped that the house had made it through those tumultuous years better than we had and it did. We found another new owner puttering with plants in its backyard, thrilled to be living there. The neighborhood has gone through a resurgency, it seems, and that stately grand dame of a house stands dressed in new colorful siding. Why should we care? We don’t own it anymore—haven’t since 1976—yet it felt good to see that it was getting the love and attention befitting it. We wished the young woman good luck in her new home and let her know we cared for it many years before.

Our journey continued to a park—Hartwood Acres—where our pre-school children danced with us on the stage to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. What a memorable night under the summer stars that was! The lush green fields and the music stand surrounded by hills looked just as wonderful as they did then. Even better, walking trails had been added and we witnessed children flying kites, mothers with baby carriages, families frolicking with their dogs. We were happy to see joy still there. Yet was it also bittersweet to reminisce about the moments there that were? Our youthfulness now gone?

We moved on down the back road that has changed very little since we left, still hills of open space, to find our little house in the country, the stone house built so carefully and with such heart in 1929. Up a winding drive this place was the quintessential storybook house. Whenever I go to Winterthur’s Enchanted Garden, with its miniature stone cottage, I think of our old house in Gibsonia. Still there, we looked at it from the road not wanting to disturb its owner. It looked happy nestled among the trees that had grown much taller since our own time there.

What we did do was drive up to our old neighbor’s home across the street. Salt of the earth, kind people these were who have lived in that area all their lives. Since it was Mother’s Day, we found lots of their family present. We didn’t disrupt the festivities as they were done with their meal, but we did get to catch up on them and their numerous children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Again a bittersweet time. Our friend’s extended family is doing well, but the mother, our old neighbor is in constant back pain, having had several spinal surgeries. We recalled the things we had done together, picking grapes from the back of a pickup truck because the vines had grown high into a tree. My foray into making grape juice! Neither one of us can do that now.

Our ten years in this country setting saw us with goats in the barn and a garden larger than some backyards, sunflowers eight feet tall. Memories that even my children don’t know but my old neighbors do. That my friend who has died has a shared history that they also don’t know.

Perhaps that is what it is about, aging and dying, or that we want the houses that we loved and where we loved still to stand. It is that our family, friends take our shared memories with them when they die? That there is a part of us that goes with them? My husband and I needed to see these places to know that in this impermanence called life there is still some ground, some constancy, however fleeting even that is. It was good to reconnect with old friends, classmates, neighbors in the midst of grief. Ah, the constant flow of life, death, life … .