When someone close to me dies, I seem to take on some of their habits or characteristics. This has manifested in various ways—once in a craving for chocolate-covered cherries; another time playing sound tracks to musical comedies. I’ve observed this happening to other people as well: usually it takes the form of becoming close to another person who knew the deceased person.
We’re doing what we can to replace that person by continuing their work in the world.
My mother was known for scrupulously acknowledging people’s birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other milestones. People who were used to receiving an annual card from her would worry if one failed to appear, but this rarely, if ever, occurred. She kept a small leather-bound book in which birthdays and anniversaries were meticulously recorded. Next to children’s names she noted their year of birth and chose age-appropriate birthday cards for them. She shopped mid-month at a greeting card store with such regularity that the clerks knew when to expect her, and saved sale items or cards they thought she’d like. She signed and addressed a month’s worth at once, noting their date in the corner of the envelope where a stamp would eventually hide it, and she kept them stacked chronologically on a table in the hall.
Some time during my adulthood my mother presented me with a book like hers, with family members’ birthdays already recorded for me. I tried to emulate her habit, but it soon became too much for me: too much brain ache to choose the perfect card; too much money as the price of a Hallmark climbed; too much resentment when my card-giving wasn’t reciprocated.
But until December 1, 2005, when she died at the age of 87, my mother continued sending cards to a dwindling number of peers and a growing number of great-grandchildren.
After the Florida funeral, I went back home and was suddenly seized, for the first time in my life, with an urgent need to send out Christmas cards. Now, I am Jewish, I don’t celebrate Christmas, and my friends don’t expect to get Xmas cards from me. Yet after my mother’s death I searched through every address book, Roladex and email box, gathering names and addresses, and hustled to get the cards out by the 25th. I had no idea where this compulsion came from—until Valentines Day came around, and Hallmark fever hit again.
As I drew hearts and xxxes on cards to grandsons, aunts, friends and children, the impetus to send cards began to dawn on me—but it wasn’t until I addressed a card to my sister that it became brilliantly clear. As I held her Valentine in my hand, I knew this was no empty gesture: my sister would receive this card on the first Valentines Day of her life that no card would be sent to her by my mother. This card mattered.
I was replacing my mother as best I could. I was doing her work in the world.
What gesture or habit of mine will my children adopt when I’m gone? Will they write fervent letters to their Congresspeople on issues of social justice? Create themed musical CDs in response to events like 911 or Hurricane Katrina? I don’t know what it will be—but of this I am sure: there will be something, even if it’s only doing crossword puzzles on airplanes–because when someone close to us dies, we continue their work in the world. It’s our way of keeping them alive.