Memento mori. Because January isn’t depressing enough!

A few years ago I was asked to participate in a project at work to design and make available a “memory book” type of thing for patients – mostly palliative patients who knew their time was limited – to leave for their family and friends. It’s a lovely idea, really, and I was happy to be involved. I am all for anything – anything – that helps patients or anyone, really, talk about death and the dying process, how we want to be remembered, and what we want to leave behind. We don’t talk about it enough, frankly.

I met a couple of times with the nurse and social worker who initiated the idea, and it seemed simple enough: design a few pages for patients to pick up and create their own memory project/legacy project. One of the nurses gave me a couple of books to give me some inspiration. You know the type. They might be titled “Mother Remembers” or “Grandma’s Memories”or something (rarely Father remembers, but that’s a whole other blog post kettle of fish.) They usually have a wee family tree at the front, a place for the person’s name, birthdate and location of birth, all those types of details. Then the fun begins. Sections entitled “School Days” “Pets I Loved” “Friends I Had” “Summer Vacations” and on and on. After leafing through these samples, I knew I was going to have a problem.

When our kids were born, we received baby books. You know what I’m talking about, places to list details, milestones and “firsts”, etc. for your baby’s first year or two of life. I stared and stared at these books. For months and months. The pages always seemed so…limiting. I know it’s not a big deal, and it was hard not to just think “Well, on the page that says “My first steps”, you just
put down the date he took his first steps, stupid.” Because that’s what you do. But for some reason, it just didn’t seem like enough. Or something.

Anyway, our oldest son has a half-assed, half-filled-in baby book (that I did pretty much all in one go,in a fit of guilt) that he inherits. Our youngest does not. Oh we have the book, it’s just that I never once added anything to it. Yes, my plan has always been to pay for his therapy, of course. In my defence, I do have a journal that I kept in the kitchen where I wrote day-to-day things
about him and his older brother. Not every day, just when the mood struck or something particularly interesting or cute or funny happened. But keeping
it in the kitchen was actually one of my more brilliant ideas, since I spend a lot of time there, and it’s kind of the centre of the house and in there I can always hear what’s going on, watch the kids coming and going and be able to observe them. I pulled it out a few weeks ago when I was clearing out cupboards and had a look. It’s nowhere near complete, but some of those spontaneous little
scribbles evoke some of the most vivid and fondest memories of their childhood.It’s still in the kitchen, and I still spend a lot of time there, so maybe I’ll go back to it one day.

Traditional memory books/legacy books are pretty white, and almost exclusively for hetero people, people who marry once, and, they don’t really take into account the possiblity of blended families. (By now, 17 years later, there are hopefully books like this that DO include different types of families, for those who want them.) In the memory pages I designed, I tried to make the topics a little more inclusive so I used titles like “True Love” instead of “When I met my husband” and ‘Making it Official” instead of “Our Wedding”. Granted, these are still pretty traditional and obvious and only take into consideration one trajectory of life, when there are really thousands of ways a person could live their life with or without someone. But it was a start, and one I could produce in
better (if not entirely good) conscience.

I was talking with a colleague about something unrelated, when she spotted the memory pages in my library. “So how do these do?” she
asked. “Do lots of people come in for them?” I replied that no, they don’t. And then I was shocked when she said “I’m not surprised.” I told her
that I had started to wonder if perhaps it was my bias that stopped me from pushing the pages on people. But she said no, that it’s a difficult conversation to have with anyone – particularly when you’re the librarian like me, and you don’t necessarily know a patient’s situation entirely. Nothing like saying “Hey there, you look like it might be time to put together a legacy book” to someone who is perfectly well and very likely to recover, or even worse, to someone who may be dying, but may not have come to terms with that fact just yet. And, getting back to the fact that our society doesn’t like to talk about death and preparing to die, it
shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, that these memory pages elicit a  “la la la I’m not listening” kind of response from a lot of people.

I also see it as just one more thing that women (because it’s mostly women) are required to do. Wouldn’t it be nice to leave this legacy with all this information for your family. Sure, maybe. But maybe not. And if it’s something you don’t actually want to do? “Well, why not? Don’t you want them to have memories?” It’s one more thing you owe your family, society, Leave a nice tidy package of
memories for everyone to cling to when you’re gone. And if you don’t want to, what does that tell the nice people who suggested it? Again, it’s a lot of pressure. Or it can seem like a lot of pressure.

Years ago, when the kids were small, my husband and I were driving to a party, and listening to a comedian on the radio. She was pretty funny, and did a bit on scrapbooks which was hilarious. This was at the beginning of what seemed to be the “scrapbooking era”, and a lot of my friends were into it, so it seemed extra relevant. I don’t recall everything she said (I don’t recall the comedian’s name
either, unfortunately) but one line stuck with me, with both of us, really: You want memories? Pay attention.

The gist of it was that when you create a scrapbook (or whatever) for your kids, you are in some way projecting your own memories of a particular event on to the person you’re creating it for. This was a MAJOR lightbulb moment for me, because I always found it interesting that my parents and I had different memories of specific events. Obviously they were remembering things as an adult and I was remembering the same event from a kid’s perspective, which is going to be completely different. Now, creating a memory book about your own life to leave behind is different of course, as is a baby book (babies likely have
memories, but we haven’t quite yet been able to tap into them, so it’s perfectly valid to log those early years for them) but the different perspective memories bit always stuck with me.

Growing up, my parents had an old suitcase full of family photos. What? You had traditional photo albums? Pictures in frames? Whatever. Get on my level. Whenever I was sick in bed or just kind of bored, I would go through it. What I loved most was that each time I opened the suitcase, the experience was different. I couldn’t go through ALL the photos every time, there were too many. There were lots where I didn’t know the people in the photos, so I would spend less time on those. But every once in awhile my mum would
sit with me and have a look through them with me, and she could name the people that I didn’t know. We’d look at photos from an event
and share our own memories of them. It was nice, and fun and I learned a lot. We probably both did.

And maybe this is why I felt restricted, limited by “the page” idea – both for the baby books and for the memory book project at work. Maybe I can’t put my memories on paper, maybe they require more than one or two dimensions. Or maybe it’s not the medium at all, because I obviously write (sometimes a LOT about minor details!) maybe it’s just hard to pick and choose what to include. Like the trouble I had with the baby book. Sure, he took his first steps on December 16th, but what about the trial and error that led to that? Where’s the space to write all the observations prior to the first steps?

Facing a blank page – or even worse, a page with “fill something in about this particular subject here” can be tough, and to be honest, I’d take a blank page any day. Blank pages are considerably better. Like this blog, for instance. Each entry is a blank page, so to speak. And while sometimes it’s daunting to begin a post or form an entire entry, at least there are no (few) restrictions. Do I want to take 700 words to talk about my son’s first steps? I can do that. I’ll probably be the only person who cares to read it, but hey. That’s ok too.

What I guess I’m getting at (although who knows for sure) is that it’s HARD to take one instance of a life and reduce it to a thought bubble on a page. “Favourite Recipes” – my god, I could write pages on my mother’s cabbage rolls. Where the recipe came from, the first time I helped her make them, when they were served, specific events that they conjure up, the way the house smelled while they were cooking. See? Sure I could put the ingredients and instructions down in a notebook for you, but that wouldn’t be enough. For me, anyway.

And I’m not saying that every memory requires an essay, and I’m not saying no one should consider a memory book ever. Just that a life is so much more than a few lines jotted down on some glossy 8 1/2 x 11 paper. And I do like what I’m seeing in legacy work now. I’ve heard of classes where patients create a box – like our family suitcase maybe – to add items that are meaningful. Photos,  original recipe cards, maybe concert ticket stubs, or programs, and other, as they say in archival work, ephemera. I’ve also heard of nursing homes and palliative care centres that have professionals come in to record the voices of the patients, so they can leave their stories, their memories that way. Videos, music, all these things, possibly combined with a book or set of pages, gives the memories
a life of their own, once the life itself ceases to be. Or maybe it’s a blog like this one with 700+ words on a child’s first steps, or their first tooth or their high school graduation. Whatever it is, you need to find YOU within it. It has to be authentic to you, to who you are. So that when someone pushes you toward a series of pages or a book to fill out, you can say YES, this is perfect! Or
nah, friend, that’s just not me.

But no matter what, the advice of that comedian will always ring true. You want memories? Pay attention.


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