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The Gift of Remembering Those We’ve Lost

All of us lose loved ones over the course of our lives, and the pain of those losses is especially sharp during the holiday season. Passing on their memories to younger generations is a gift that truly lasts.

Letterbox photo by Paul Simpson

Photo by Paul Simpson.

We were just finishing up lunch two weeks ago when the phone rang.  I picked it up and was greeted by Jane, an acquaintance of mine who volunteers at another grass-fed livestock farm about 30 minutes from here. 

“Shannon, I’m calling you because I wanted to let you know that we just made the tallow soap recipe from your new cookbook,” she explained quickly.  I winced and tangled myself in the phone cord as I reached for my own kitchen copy and frantically rifled through the pages in search of the recipe.  Had I left something out? Was there an error we didn’t catch in the proofreading and recipe testing? 

“What happened?” I asked, preparing for the worst.

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“Oh, the soap? That was great … But I wanted to tell you about what happened after.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, I settled in on a stool.

Jane began telling me about her grandmother, and explained that she’d raised her family in the country but died tragically at an early age.  Her own mother had been so traumatized by the event that she rarely spoke about her childhood.  Jane, as a result, knows very little about her family’s roots.

Jane’s mother is now in her late eighties and still rather taciturn in nature, but Jane makes a point of calling her every day in an ongoing effort to stay connected.  Their conversations extend to the matters of the day, Jane explained, and rarely go deeper … until the day she mentioned that she and her friends were rendering animal fats to make soap.  

Quite unexpectedly, her mother began to talk.  Triggered by the memory of harvesting animals in the fall and her own mother’s rendering pot, the elderly woman began sharing snippets of her own memories about this process, giving Jane a rare glimpse into a family history that she’d craved all her life. 

I had been in a rather glum “writer’s mood” that morning (I’m prone to them occasionally: bouts of panic that suddenly everyone will find my writing horrible; that our family will somehow be cast into the streets because I wrote a bad book; followed by despair that my books are selling too few copies, which is followed by despair that my books are selling too many copies, followed by despair and panic that I won’t be able to write another book … and why should I? They give me such misery … You get the point).

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Jane’s phone call was enough to help me step outside my self-centered misery and rejoin life, and I felt thankful to her.  But truthfully, I thought little more about the phone call ...

... Until a few days ago, when an email with a Word attachment landed in my inbox.  It had been circulating through my Dad’s side of the family, and he’d forwarded it along to my brother and me with the simple note saying, “Please read. Love, Dad.”

I opened the document to discover that it was written by my Uncle Bill, whose wife, my Aunt Eileen, had lost a fierce battle with cancer a year and a half ago.  That branch of the family is centered in Ohio. I’d had very little contact with them growing up, so I was curious why my Dad had seen fit to send me this document, which was a personal account of my Uncle Bill’s memories of Aunt Eileen.  

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In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve never heard Uncle Bill speak more than four or five sentences.  But here before me was a 31-page document containing his memories of his life with my aunt.  He started with the very first moment he saw her red hair at a square dance at Penn State at the beginning of the 1961 fall term.  From there he recounted details of their courtship, the ways they spent time together, their wedding, what their first apartment was like, how they lived on $185 per month.  He wrote down her jokes, stories that underscored her assertive personality, the cultural clashes that occurred between my East Coast relatives and his Pennsylvania family.  He told stories about each of their children’s births, about when their house burned down, and about dairy farming and growing tobacco in Ohio.

I hung on every word.  And I began to understand the significance of Jane’s phone call with her mother.  I didn’t know my Aunt Eileen very well, just as Jane had never known her grandmother.  But the details of their lives—the things they thought, the way they lived, the major events in their lives—form the fabric of our identities regardless. 

All of us lose loved ones over the course of our lives, and the pain of those losses is especially sharp during the holiday season, when we cope with the darkness by adhering to traditions with our family and friends.  And when the people who were closest to the departed can find ways to share their memories with the subsequent generations, their sharing is truly a gift—one that will not wind up in a landfill, pollute the skies, or clutter a home, but will always fit perfectly and last through time. 

Uncle Bill’s memories of Aunt Eileen are now my memories.  And as I raise my own children and guide them into this fast-changing world, those memories will become part of our family wisdom.  I am deeply grateful to him for taking the time to share these thoughts.  They represent one of the sweetest gifts I’ve known.

I wish you all a peaceful holiday season, made rich by the gift of memories.


Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. Her newest book is Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lover's Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

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