Thursday, April 12, 2012

There is no Death!

My Zaida Max
     Today, my friend S shared a piece from Roger Ebert's journal entitled "I Remember You" which describes his dismay as more and more of the important people in his life pass from this world into the next.  In particular, Ebert is bothered by the way in which those people fade, not from this world, but from our memories.  He details, in his typically amazing writing, his realization that he's the only person left in his family that could recognize his uncle, Ben.  He was at the funeral of a cousin when he saw a photo in the family slide show and was
 . . . startled, and waited for it to come around again. I pointed at the screen and started to write a note to explain, but it was no use: Now that this cousin had died, there was no one in the room who would have understood--not even his own younger sister. 

The photo showed a family gathering in front of a small house in North Champaign, on some land where there's now a shopping mall. In the second row, much taller than anyone else, was Uncle Ben. He was married to Aunt Mame, my father's oldest sister. He drove an oil truck, and when he passed our house he sometimes tooted his horn and I'd run out in front and wave.

He was high above me in the cab of the truck, a considerable figure. He smoked cigars, which I found odd and unusual. I remembered him being tall, but in childhood everyone seems tall. In the old photo, I realized how tall he really was.

I think there's a chance I was the only person in the room who knew it was Uncle Ben in the second row. There were probably a dozen who knew in general who the picture showed--ancestors on the mother's side--but does the name or an idea of Uncle Ben linger on earth outside my own mind? When I die, what will remain of him?
Ebert makes a really strong point: as long as we are remembered, even if our body no longer remains on this Earth, we still live.  But what happens when even the memories of us are gone?  Of course, one can hardly ruminate on such a subject as it applies to another without thinking about ourselves, and Ebert is no exception. In discussing several good friends with whom he spent many happy times--but are no longer alive, he says: 
I remember them. They exist in my mind--in countless minds. But in a century the human race will have forgotten them, and me as well. Nobody will be able to say how we sounded when we spoke. If they tell our old jokes, they won't know whose they were.

That is what death means. We exist in the minds of other people, in thousands of memory clusters, and one by one those clusters fade and disappear. Some years from now, at a funeral with a slide show, only one person will be able to say who we were. Then no one will know.
     I understand where Ebert is coming from.  It's a terrifying thought to consider that you may, one day, be unknown to anyone.  A couple years ago, I came across a gorgeous and well-tended baby book dating to the end of the 19th century.  Several old photos were affixed to the pages featuring a young infant. A lock of brittle hair was included in a pocket on another page. Several of the child's details were written, in curly inked handwriting, across the pages.  I was amazed to realize that perhaps no one from this child's family wanted this precious memento of an ancestor.  Seeing how loved the child had been, it seemed utterly incomprehensible to me, and yet, here was this baby book, for sale, in a bookstore.  Apparently, the child--or the adult he became--was no longer remembered or cherished.

     How can we not fear that someone similar could happen to us?  That our lives might not have any meaning, in the end?  And yet, although I sympathize with  Ebert's concerns--how can I not?--I think that there are many ways that memories continue to exist long after we do.

The TV version of Mr. Edwards, with Laura
     A commenter on Ebert's Journal, Jennifer Morrow, points out that writing is one of the ways to extend memory.  She notes that because Ebert wrote about his memories of Uncle Ben, we can now all remember him, and that is the "beauty of writing." She went on to make a connection to the Roman poet Catullus, while I thought of Mr. Edwards from Little House on the Prairie.  The Little House books were a major part of my childhood, and the images Laura painted with her writing have never left my mind.  Mr. Edwards loomed larger than life (after all, he met Santa Claus!), and it's impossible for me to forget the stories she told about him.  Although it's possible that he is an amalgamation of several men that her family knew in Kansas, nonetheless, the stories are the memories she accumulated from interactions with other human beings.  Although she passed away in 1957, and most of those who may have known him probably left us long before then, millions of readers (and, eventually, TV viewers) grew to know him because of her writing.  Shakespeare himself makes this argument in "Sonnet 18" when he says:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Obviously, writing is a wonderful way to memorialize those we know and ensure that others will always know them in the way we did.

My Bubbe Manya and Zaida Max
     Beyond writing, there are other ways that our memory lives on. Another is in stories.  My family, like many, tells stories of our relatives and ancestors whenever we get together. Some of them are so often told that most of us can recite them along with the teller, but we enjoy them ever time.  In fact, my sisters and I eagerly clamored to hear the stories over and over, until we, too, had memorized them.  Some of these stories featured relatives we never met in person, including my father's grandfather, Zaida Max, who died long before my parents even met.  My great-grandfather came to live with my grandparents when my dad and uncle were both in college but still living at home.  They got to know him in a way that had not before been possible, and the stories they tell about him are hilarious, charming, and give me such a picture of Zaida Max that, although I never met him, I feel as if I have.  That's why it was so surprising when my uncle shared a photo of Zaida Max (above) when we were visiting him last summer: he stood so rigid and unsmiling that I literally didn't recognize him. Uncle Ron says that his Zaida always stood that way in photos: regal, formal, and hardly like the person I'd come to know through their stories.  This is the man, after all, who is famous for saying, although was born and died a Jew, "When I was a young man, I used to eat a lot of bacon."!  I realized in that instant that unless my family had shared their stories of my great-grandfather, I never would have really understood who he was.  These photos don't tell even half of the story, although the one at the top of the page seems much more like the man I see in my mind.

So, writing, stories, and, even, genealogy (but that's a story for another time) are ways we can continue to live on even after we--and those who knew us--are gone.  Ebert got it right: as long as we are remembered, we never truly die.  But that doesn't mean that we only live as long as those who've known us directly do.  As long as those who know us share their memories with others, through writing, stories, artwork, and more, we'll continue to live on and on.  And that's pretty comforting.

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