When an old person dies, a library burns. African proverb
Mom is turning 94 in a few days. She is still kind and funny and self-aware. Her memory, though, is developing gaps. As I watch her struggling for names and words, I am so grateful that she told me so much about her long and interesting life. I have been blessed to be raised by a fine storyteller.
My own memory is rich with many stories about her childhood in Depression-era Des Moines, Iowa:
The sound the ice wagon made coming up the street – horse hooves on cobblestones.
The way her father sat down at the piano to sing and play immediately after returning from work in his family real estate office.
How her elegant, brilliant mother worked outside the home – a highly unusual thing for a mother in the 1930’s.
The tender ministrations she received from Mrs. Morning, the Irish housekeeper and cook who helped raise her.
Long ice skating afternoons with friends and siblings.
Collecting nuts with her father at the local park.
She lived through amazing times. She was just five years old when the Depression hit and just graduating high school when Pearl Harbor happened. She and Dad got engaged quickly and then he went off to work in an Army hospital in India for four long years. Her college years were his war years.
Back when Mom was still in her 80’s, I wanted to catch as many of her vivid stories as I could. When I arrived with my laptop and a list of questions, she nervously wondered if she would have anything to say.
My rapid typing skills were put to a serious test. She was a fountain of stories full of rich detail and subtle nuance. Twenty-five pages later, I teased her about her earlier doubts.
Lately I have been recording her stories on my phone. I have hours of her voice recounting tales of her long life. She has gotten more honest about some of the hard times than she used to be. I’m honored when she trusts me with her “dark nights of the soul” stories. It helps me understand the roots of some of my own struggles.
These days Mom talks easily and often about dying. She frequently repeats this little riff. “When you go to sleep at night at my age, you never know whether you’re going to wake up in the morning. So, every night I say the little prayer I used to say as a girl: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.’” And then she smiles.
I know she is at peace with dying. I am preparing for her departure every day. One of the most difficult parts of letting her go is this: when she dies, that rich treasure trove of story will go with her. No matter how many of her stories I catch, her unique experience of being alive during her lifetime will be lost forever.