Monday, February 8, 2010

Memento mori, memento vivere

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.   

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?   
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.   
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

My ninety-year-old grandmother (who, incidentally, is enjoying a sunny, week-long Palm Springs vacation with her older sister as I write this) has already been living with my parents for nearly a decade. When she moved in with them, she was forced to part with much that she called her own. Furniture had to go. Excess clothes and duplicate housewares were set out for sale in the front yard. She pared down a lifetime of goods to fit into a two-bedroom basement apartment (and a couple of storage closets), keeping only the most necessary and the most precious of her things.

Gradually, over the last few years, she has also begun dispersing even some of the most precious belongings as well. For birthdays, Christmases, and days in between she has given me, among other things, a collection of glass dishes she received as a wedding gift, hand-cut with floral motifs by the father of a high school friend; an assortment of Christmas ornaments she carefully painted during one of her "crafty" phases; a set of black metal trivets from the days when she kept her own table and served family dinners on dishes warmed in the oven—the same dishes that are now stacked in my kitchen cupboard; and her engagement ring, now set with a souvenir opal from a trip my parents took to Australia.

Knowing something of the memories tied to each of these gifts, I cannot help but feel honored—almost speechless—to be the recipient of these keepsakes, these earthly treasures. So valuable. And so valueless. There's a kind of bitter joy attached to each of them, and a collection of stories, of pain and of pleasure, hidden beneath their varied surfaces. Many have stories that I will never hear. But they are stories that my grandmother knows by heart.

Some of what she's given to me has been merely practical. Some of it has been utterly and beautifully impractical. All of it has been a reminder of the swift passage of life.

Both she and I find ourselves wondering, "Where have the years gone?" My babies are in grade school. But her babies are grandparents to the ones in grade school. She talks to me of "the kids" doing this or that, and I know that her mind's eye does not see them as the gray-haired 50- and 60-year-old adults they have become; she sees, instead, the dark-haired youths whose lifetimes once lay ahead of them, stretched out as far as the distant horizon. It's not that she has forgotten that her sons and daughter are grown; it's that she cannot forget the children they once were. Those childhood days, as even I know, were not so very long ago.

The grass withers, the flower fades 
when the breath of the Lord blows on it; 
surely the people are grass. 

One day last week, my three-year-old son, Paul (who is certainly a flower of the grass still in the bud), was staring at my face with a look of deep concentration. He seemed to be examining all the newly formed lines around my mouth and eyes, or searching for flashes of silver among my eyelashes. "Mom," he finally said, "Will you change your face when you get old?" He paused for a moment as I considered what he meant. "Like G.G.?" he resumed, "She changed her face from when she was young.... How did she turn her hair white?"

Paul had seen, framed along her hallway, the glamorous hand-tinted photos of G.G., my grandmother, with smooth skin, and plump red lips, and not a strand of her thick auburn hair out of place. Paul, for whom a five-minute wait is an eternity, could not imagine a change such as this. What strange magic could have worked upon that strong and slender body, on that flawless and radiant face? I laugh at the childish misunderstanding implied by the question: "Will you change your face?" But as I laugh, I find that I, too, must see the wonder and the peculiarity of such an alteration—that my laughter will turn to laugh lines, and that invisible crows are leaving visible footprints in my skin. I will, in fact, change my face when I am old.

My grandmother has changed her face. She has turned her hair white. But she is still very much alive. It is, I suppose, because she has lived so long that she can see all the more clearly how short life is. From her long-lived vantage, she has glimpsed the futility of laying up treasure where moth and rust destroy. And so she has begun to pass the job of earthly hoarding on to me.

For her 30-something granddaughter, this stuff, these memories, these pieces of a life gone by, are certainly treasures. But they are also, simultaneously, "memento mori" and "memento vivere." These mementos set before me the inescapable truth that I must die, and, consequently, that I must live.

At ninety, my grandmother, who has outlived so many of her friends and relatives, has realized that "you can't take it with you." And I, holding her memories in my hands, am forced to realize that neither can I. As quickly as I am able to focus my eyes on the present moment, it has already fallen behind; the years slip by like roadside trees seen from a speeding car.

She is old, and I am almost young. But what is that to us? A breath and a sigh. Grass and flowers. When at last, whether soon or late, my grandmother passes from things temporal to things eternal, I think we all may feel the urge to say, "What—gone so soon? We hoped you might stay and rest your feet...and linger here awhile."

I accept her gifts, and the stories—told and untold—contained within them. And as I do, I think ahead to the day that will come, sooner than I can imagine, when I will be clearing out my own basement, and selling off my own furniture, and putting into my own granddaughter's hands the treasures I have laid up on earth.

I made a posy, while the day ran by:
“Here will I smell my remnant out, and tie
                           My life within this band.”
But Time did beckon to the flowers, and they
By noon most cunningly did steal away,
                           And withered in my hand.


Stone Age Diva said...

What a beautiful and enjoyable writing. I so related to it because my own dear mother at 83 is so interesting and always a new story to tell me of her past.
You framed your grandmother in a wreath of flowers and words so exquisitely. I thank you for sharing.
Mike Ann Zable

J. C. Schaap said...

Hey, Hannah! Thanks so much, lady. And you too--just keep writing. I knew very well that when you sat in my class, this young lady in front of me was someone with a gift. Just keep using it! jcs

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