fullsizeoutput_b0When I was a kid, I often heard my grandparents talk about the Great Depression.  I grew up knowing that my grandfather felt very fortunate to be a dentist, because that was something that was always needed, even in hard times.  He had to keep his prices extremely low, but he said he was grateful to be able to earn enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.  I knew that my grandmother always made sandwiches for the people who knocked on their door, asking for help.  She said she didn’t have any money to spare, but she could make sure that no one went away hungry.

Listening to those stories shaped how I understood my grandparents.  I grew up knowing that they were grateful for what they had, and willing to share with others in need.  I’m sure they had their moments of worry, fear and frustration as they lived through those dire times, but my general impression was that they were essentially strong and caring people.

I know we will be talking about this current pandemic for a long time to come, and that for many of us, this will be the defining crisis of our lives.  And that made me wonder what I’ll be able to say about how I coped with this, and even more importantly, how I’ll know I reacted to it.

When this is over (and it will be, even though no one knows exactly when), I’m going to look back on this time and ask myself, “Was I brave or fearful?  Was I wise or foolish?  Did I make the best of a bad situation, or did I made a bad situation even worse?”  And I’m going to have to live with those answers for a very long time.

I know I won’t always like my own answers, if I’m brave enough to be completely honest with myself.  I’ve had my moments of fear, frustration and self-pity, and I suspect that most everyone else has too.  We’re human, and we can’t possibly be strong all the time, especially with a crisis that just seems to go on and on.  But when I’m feeling down, it does help to remember my grandparents and how they somehow managed to stay in touch with their best selves even at a time when it must have seemed as if their entire world was falling apart.

And so I’ll try to do the same.  I’ll try to find things to be grateful for, every single day.  I’ll resist the urge to lash out at others who say things that “trigger” my own fears, and I’ll refuse to use this pandemic as an excuse to attack those whose politics, religion, or any other belief system is different from mine.  I won’t remind anyone that their predictions about how this crisis was going to play out were wrong.  And most importantly, I won’t let the uncertainty about how long this will last and how much damage it will do to our society to push me into stockpiling supplies so that others have to do without.

Because some day I will be asked about how I handled this dark time, and I’d like to think that I learned a thing or two from my grandparents. Which means that I want to follow their example, and try to stay in touch with my best self too.

Hidden Treasure

I can’t say that I was looking forward to helping my mom prepare for her upcoming move into a retirement community.  I knew that my mom doesn’t make decisions easily, and would therefore need help in deciding exactly what she wanted to take with her into her new apartment.  And I also knew that Mom has a ton of stuff in her house to be sorted through, and that we’re going to have to figure out exactly what to do with all the things that she no longer wants.  Moving from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment requires some serious downsizing and a whole lot of time and work.

But while it hasn’t exactly been fun to spend hours on end at Mom’s house emptying out closets, sorting through her kitchen cabinets and opening all the boxes stored in her basement, there’s been an unexpected upside to this whole procedure.  Because while some of those boxes, drawers and closets are full of the stuff that probably should have been donated or thrown away years (if not decades) ago, we’ve also discovered some family things that have made all the effort worthwhile.

I found a scrapbook that my mom made for the 10th anniversary celebration of my dad’s ordination.  Sounds boring, I know, but that scrapbook was filled with photos of our family and articles about us that I hadn’t ever seen because I wasn’t living at home when Mom made the scrapbook.  Or when she decided to put it in a box and leave it in that unopened box during three subsequent moves.  (Now you see why I insist on opening all the boxes for this move.)

dS0lwqSCSwKbwC1WqL+ExwWe also found an invitation to wedding of my great-grandfather to my great-grandmother, which I plan to frame.  And it was great fun looking through the folder my parents had made when we were planning my wedding, especially when we looked at the prices that were being considered.  My dad had written, “I told them to forget it!” next to the name of one venue, so I guess it’s safe to assume that they were a bit more expensive than the $11.95 per person we eventually paid for my reception.

Going through Mom’s stuff has brought back so many memories.  I loved discovering letters written by relatives who died years ago, because it was almost as if I were hearing their voices again.  And finding the copy of my grandfather’s high school report card covered with B’s and C’s was a bit of a surprise, since I had always known him as a smart and successful dentist.  Discovering that he had struggled a little in high school made me realize how hard he must have worked for the success he achieved later in life, when he actually taught at dental school.

Some of the documents I found were sad, like the guest books for both of my great-grandparent’s funerals.  Even sadder were the telegrams to out-of-town relatives, informing them that my oldest sister died shortly after her premature birth, and asking them to reach out to my mother.  But all of it is a record of my family’s past, and therefore also a part of my past.

I am, and always will be, a strict minimalist who firmly believes in the old adage “less is more.”  But when it comes to the photos, documents, letters, etc. that record family history, I have come to believe that there is no such thing as too much.  It may not have a monetary value, but trust me me….it’s true treasure.

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late

I sometimes think the hardest part of being middle aged is coping with too much loss.  I’m not talking about the long and depressing list of the things we have learned to do without at this point of our lives:  good eyesight, a slim waistline, a dependable memory, the ability to eat rich foods right before bedtime and still sleep like a baby, etc.  I’m talking about the almost devastating sense of loss that comes from knowing far too many people who are no longer with us.

As a child, I was lucky enough not to lose any member of my family I was truly close to, and I was almost eighteen when my grandmother, whom I loved dearly, died. I can still remember how long it took before I could accept that I would never see her again, and how for a while after her death, it was almost physically painful to be in her house.  But that was just the beginning.  By my early thirties, all my relatives of my grandmother’s generation were gone, or at least the ones I actually knew.  And the year I turned fifty was the same year that my father died.

Easter at Jones'

I have reached the age where I have known too many people who are gone, whether they were family, friends, coworkers or even just casual acquaintances.  I know people my age who have lost both parents, who have lost their spouses, who have lost siblings, and worst of all, sometimes even their children.  I suppose I was naive about death, thinking that the pain of losing too many people who are important to you was something that didn’t happen until you were well and truly old, unless you lived in a war-torn country.  I didn’t realize that the process of loss begins much earlier for most people, even for those of us who have been fortunate to live relatively peaceful lives.

Sadly, losing people we love is just a natural part of life and we really have no choice in the matter.  But what I can choose is how I react to the loss.  I can choose to be sad and angry, and honestly, in the days, weeks or even months after someone I care about dies, sad and angry is exactly what I am, and it doesn’t particularly feel like a choice.  But after the initial grief passes, I can choose to be thankful for the time I had with the people I loved, and I can use my grief as a reminder of just how fragile and fleeting life really is.

I think the best response to the long and growing list we middle-agers have of loved ones who have died is to remember to treasure the time we have with the people who are still with us.  These days, I rarely have a phone call with my mother (who just turned 85) that doesn’t end with “love you.”  Several good friends and I routinely say the same thing, sometimes in person, sometimes in emails or texts, and they aren’t empty words.  We have been around long enough to know that we need to tell people how much we care about them.  We have figured out that we need to make time for each other, even when it’s not convenient, and to put aside the petty differences that seemed so important when we were young and thought we had all the time in the world.

I know I can’t change the fact that too many people I want in my life are now gone. But what I can do is make sure I appreciate all the people I care about who are still here, and to never forget just how fragile and precious life really is.