Saturday, May 07, 2011

handing down the names.*

Wednesday was the memorial for a friend who died last week. It was held at St. Mark's Cathedral, up at the north end of Capitol Hill, a giant barn of an Episcopal church. The sun was out and the cathedral was full of light; the ceilings are high and the walls are set with many-paned windows. Even on a cloudy day it must be a bright space. J. and I sat near the back, and watched as people streamed in through the doors. I wondered what stories people would tell us when they got up to speak. I wondered what her children would say about their mother. I thought about my friends who knew her better than I did, what they would tell their children about this woman who blazed across our lives like a meteor shower, bright and all too brief.

What will my friend's children tell their children about the grandmother they will never know? I think about my father's parents, who died long before I was born. I know so little about them and yet they must have shaped my father somehow, even if his mother had died when he was six years old and his father when he was eighteen. My mother's mother died when I was eight, and I barely knew her. Will I tell my own children about her legendary temper, about the time she supposedly threw a television down a flight of stairs? How many generations pass one story to the next before it fades away and is forgotten? How long does this handing down of the names go on?

I hope we will keep telling our children about our friend, the friend who loved books more than anything except people. Who had no patience for bullshit or paper napkins. Who said that life was short; drink the good wine. I listened to these stories told by her friends and her family and tried to remember every one. I wish every day that I had gotten to know her better, but I will remember that raspy laugh and those fierce hugs for the rest of my life.

Her frequent collaborator W. got up to speak early in the service, and he was funny and irreverent, bringing out a flask which he couldn't open. He was followed by a famous local restaurateur, who got the flask open and took a couple of swigs. But it was the clergywoman leading the service who brought down the house, at the end, when she had W. bring his flask up to the lectern. She calmly drank from it, and we all exploded into cheers. It was that kind of memorial service. It was awesome. I can't think of a better way to celebrate a life.

*"handing down the names" comes from the title of a play by Steven Dietz which I saw at ACT in the mid-90's and which has stayed with me every since. It follows the story of an immigrant family across continents and through generations.

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