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How to Keep Loved Ones Alive: Tell Their Stories

According to an ancient saying, you continue to live until the last time someone speaks your name. In this way, Lisa Samalonis is determined to keep her parents alive as long as possible.

“Look I am wearing mom’s necklace,” I said in a text and selfie to my sisters before I left for a friend’s daughter’s wedding.

Earlier while putting together my outfit, I thought of mom’s vintage gold and pearl statement necklace. I pulled down the dusty box of jewelry from the top of my closet. As I felt the weight on my neck I smiled. After replies of “You look nice!” and “Fun!” my sister, 61 and nine years older than me, texted, “I don’t remember Mom wearing that one.” Bubbles appeared in the text box. My middle sister, 57, wrote, “I remember it, but I don’t remember the story.”

No one was alive to tell the history of our family.

I didn’t recall the necklace’s origin story either, but I am sure there was one because Mom always had a story, such as who gave it to her and what was she wearing when she got it. Or she would relay details like at which event she worn it, or which vacation she was on when she purchased it.

Then it hit me again, Mom was gone (as of 2015)—and so was Dad (2014)—and with their deaths went the link to our past. No one was alive to tell the history of our family, their experiences, and our things.

Read More: “When I Look Up, All I See is Sky:” Losing a Generation of Elders

The Missing Links

As a girl I remember going into my mother’s bureau and sliding open the top drawer to reveal her beige jewelry box. I clicked open the gold clasp, and rings, broaches, bangles, and colorful glass bug pins laid nestled in the pink velvet slots. Next to it sat other decorative boxes that held crystal beads of varying colors and lengths and the tiered curtain necklaces.

Days after the joyous wedding a melancholy lingered. I kept thinking how much I wished she were here to tell me the story of the necklace.

I kept thinking how much I wished she were here to tell me the story of the necklace.

Grief sneaks up on you when you are speeding along the highway or taking a shower. Many mornings it is with me as I pour coffee into the red-and-white mug that I took back from my mother’s house when we readied it for sale. Often, I start my day drinking from that cup with “I love you” written in different languages all around it. I had given it to my mother because my parents loved to travel and also for me, her love was a never-ending thread throughout my life.

We have stacks of albums from their trips. My brother-in-law, the family historian, is digitizing them, scanning and captioning each photo. When I flip through the pictures, I remember Mom and Dad sharing some snippets with us—Spanish churches, the video of the Alaskan cruise, sunrise shots of the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Yet, some are unrecognizable. Had I seen these? Did they share them, and I forgot, or was I too busy corralling toddlers, or shuttling kids to school while working my job and trying to keep my marriage together? I wish they had written down more notes. I wish I had paid more attention.

Making a Record

For the younger generation, pre-Internet can seem as foreign as a period movie or a historical television show. My children’s great-grandmother on their father’s side liked to tell tales of being young and on her own in Philadelphia in the late 1920s after running away from a coal mining town in Pennsylvania to escape “that boring, gray place.” She also shared stories of her life as a wife, mother, and owner of a bar in New Jersey in the ’40s and ’50s. Recently I retold some of these stories—like the one about her mistakenly going to a speakeasy that was then raided by police or her bolting from her factory job because of an employer who wanted a few “favors”— to my young-adult sons who never knew her, and now they want to visit the town where she was born.

I told my sons the story about their great-grandmother mistakenly going to a speakeasy that was then raided by police.

Recording family lore in writing and audio or video recordings helps preserve family history—the hardships, and the joy, and personalities of the people who have gone before. I, a writer, had encouraged Dad to write about his childhood. Sharing his boyhood feelings and recollections was difficult, he had told me once, but after his death we found a timeline of family history on his computer, so we printed it out to share with our children. We also have the memorabilia, video recordings of their vacations that I still can’t bring myself to watch, important personal records, and, of course, our memories.

Recently before my niece’s baby’s baptism, my sister gave her daughter the family christening dress, which was worn by my two sisters and me as well as my three nieces. On the white box, my mother wrote in her loopy script the names of each dress wearer and the date of their baptism. On a late summer Sunday, my first grandniece was christened in the fluffy lace dress with satin booties and a wide smile on her beautiful face. Her brown eyes tracked everyone intently, and she only let out one small cry when the water doused her head. Now, that is a story Mom would have loved.

Read More: What I Inherited From My Mother Was Not at All What I Expected

Lisa B. Samalonis writes from New Jersey. She is at work on a memoir, Just Three, about single parenting and loss.

By Lisa Samalonis


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