One of the most thoughtful gifts I received from my mother was freedom from guilt about avoiding her and my father’s gravesite. I seldom visit the cemetery. I am just following her instructions not to.
“Don’t bring flowers to the grave…” she would admonish. “…Buy shoes for a child who needs shoes!”
So I do, convinced that my mother and father are much better honored and remembered by a good deed done in their memory than by flowers brought to a stone to die or be thrown away long after the good deal continues to comfort.
Not everyone agrees with this. I have friends enslaved by their need to visit the graves of their dead regularly. Some people spend hundreds of dollars on holidays, birthdays and death anniversaries buying space in the local papers to insert old photographs of their dead above a Hallmark-wannabe verse of loss and melancholy. Worse, they write their own messages to the dead.
“We will always remember you and miss you. Cape Cod will never be the same.
Love, Jack, Jill and your loving dog Sparky.” When the dog dies, his photograph will get added to the memorial ad: same newspaper he got house trained on-- life coming full circle.
My mother was a practical but compassionate woman. She knew the difference between what people really needed and an empty gesture. She would rather buy a coat for a homeless person in winter than offer him a box of taffy his toothless mouth couldn’t handle anyway. Long before it was fashionable to do so, she would bring sandwiches to street bums knowing that a gift of cash might just go for the booze they best avoided.
My 50-year-old Dad died when I was nine. I remember going to the cemetery with my devastated mother, a widow at 49 with a child to raise alone. She wept uncontrollably. I felt helpless and useless. I also remember feeling worthless. Nothing I could be, do or say could fill the void my father’s death had created for her.
I told her this. She was stunned by the possibility that her grief would permanently wound, even damage, her child. Her practicality kicked in, and from that point forward we were buying shoes, bringing clothing, carting meals, driving people to the doctor’s, making a difference.
At her wake, there were few flowers, but there was an endless procession of mourners, some we did not recognize.
“You don’t know me…” they would offer with their hand outstretched in greeting, “…but your mother brought us a meal when my husband was out of work.” Or, “once your Mom bought my kid a snowsuit so he could slide with the other kids…” Or, “Your mother bought my mother a train ticket to New York so my Mom could visit her dying sister there.”
What tributes-- not floral, and not a newsprint advertisement of grief, but so sweet and so lasting.
- ► 2008 (17)