This Post is Kind of a Downer

So don’t say you weren’t warned.

This week my family went to Tennessee for my husband’s grandmother’s funeral. She was a lovely person, and though I didn’t know her well and had only seen her a few times, she was well loved and will be greatly missed. Going to her funeral reminded me of my own great-grandfather’s funeral. I was only a little older than my daughter Maggie is now, and I remember feeling distinctly rotten because I was not sadder. I felt that I should be crying as all the people around me seemed to be, but I hardly knew my great-grandfather. I have one really good, warm memory of him. He used to whittle the neatest little things out of peach pits, walnut shells, pecan shells, and bits of wood. He made these tiny little owls perching on branches and little baskets. Out the side door on his farm was a tree with a knothole in it. He told me to follow him outside: he wanted to show me something. He pointed inside the knothole and there was a tiny owl he had made. I couldn’t have been older than eight, and I was so excited to be receiving personal attention from my great-grandfather and so impressed by the little owl. But I didn’t cry at his funeral. I got the feeling Maggie felt like she should be more sad than she was about her own great-grandmother’s passing and that she, like I did when my great-grandfather passed, felt bad about her inability to grieve. She looked down at her feet and said, “This is a sad moment,” as if asking me if she were supposed to be sad. I told her what I wish someone had thought to tell me: “Some of the people here are very sad because they loved Granny very much.”

On our way home, my husband took me by his grandparents’ old homestead. We were in the country proper and turned up a gravel drive so steep and narrow we would only be able to back out rather than turn around when it came time to leave. The maple trees he describes surrounding the house are all there, but the house itself is gone. It looked like no house had ever even been there. Can you imagine? You live in a house for decades, sharing laughter and tears and love, and it can just disappear with no indication it was ever even there.

We don’t have long, do we? And even if we are good teachers and parents (and grandparents), within about 50 years of our deaths, the folks that loved us will pass on, and those that remain won’t know who we were or remember us. As much as I would like to think that’s not true, it is at least more true than it is not.

Maybe it’s because sometimes I feel underappreciated (if you go into teaching thinking you’ll be appreciated regularly, please let me disabuse you of that notion—you will get the occasional kind message of thanks from students and parents). Maybe I’m frustrated with some aspects of this school year. I did juggle grad school, a new position, and family, and not too well, I might add. I don’t know exactly why, but I’m feeling right now like much of what I do will be so fleetingly remembered.

So I don’t have any grand solution or poetic thoughts, except maybe this lesson from Mr. Keating:

9 thoughts on “This Post is Kind of a Downer”

  1. I know how you feel…we celebrated my aunt & uncle's 50th anniversary a few weekends ago. My parents will have theirs in 15 years. However, I looked around and wondered how many of my aunts and uncles will be alive and well enough to attend? If the cousins who did come will still want to do such a thing?

    Life really is quite fleeting…in the grand scheme of things. *sigh*

  2. Twenty years after we moved from a small house in the middle of nowhere near Fayetville, North Carolina, my ex and I visited the street. Or tried to. There were eight houses in a row in the middle of a field near a hospital and a lake. We searched and searched, but the houses had been torn down and the hospital had been converted into an old age home. In the field stood a mature pine forest. We walked along the street and I managed to find the lake, surrounded by trees, but the dock had long since rotted away. It was eerie to see how swiftly any vestige of our lives on that street had been erased. Nothing marked the time we lived there except for a few faded photographs in my parents' photo album.

  3. Thank you for your post, Dana. I returned to Tennessee three weeks ago for my grandfather's funeral. He was a good man but also one with a very different worldview than mine. I think seeing my parents struggle with their parents' death in the midst of their own divorce was the hardest thing to watch. My grandfather was buried in the family cemetary in western KY. It's a beautiful piece of land, and it was fascinating to look at the old tombstones. Some of them were so eroded that it was impossible to read them, but the family was there. This and your story of the house which no longer remains remind me of this story…

    When the Baal Shem Tov saw the survival of the Jews threatened, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and a miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the Maggid of Mezritch, faced a similar challenge, he would go to the same place in the forest and say "Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I still can say the prayer." and again, a miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Still later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say," I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient." It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished and the people survived. Then it fell to Rabbi Yisroel of Rhizin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to G-d. "I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, and I can not even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient. And it was sufficient and his people survived.

    It's been a juggling year for me, too. ( Sometimes just keeping the balls in the air, even if it's not particularly graceful or your best performance, is laudatory.

    I love Dead Poets' Society. I watch it at least once a year.

    I hope the summer brings you time to rest, play, and refresh for the school year to come.


  4. This year has been a struggle for me as well. My father's death three days into the school year meant I only met my students on the first day and then was out for four. I have felt 'wrong-footed' all year and perhaps that is why I have had a harder time with this year's crop of lovelies, especially my last period of the day. I am keeping you in my thoughts and your husband as well–how lucky he was to have his grandmother for so long.

    Have a restful summer, my friend.

  5. That's why I don't get too worked up about all the CYA that is expected of us in school. Life is too short, and remembering that helps me decide what I think is important about my job, and what is not. It's also the reason that I pretty much do whatever I want in life in general.

  6. I think that small children have difficulty absorbing the fact of death. It can be such an abstract concept, to think one day a person is here and the next their body remains, but there's no one inside. I was 8 when my father passed away, and I remember being at the funeral desperately trying to cry. I couldn't understand, I kept telling myself that he was dead and I should mourn like those around me, but it just couldn't sink in. My lifelong friend also had the same experience at her father's funeral when he passed away when she was 8 (we didn't know each other at the time, but met a year later). I would not necessarially chalk up a young child's inability to grieve at a funeral to his or her distance from the person. Sometimes, no matter how close they are, it just doesn't hit home.

    1. I'm sure you're right. I know in my case I didn't know my great-grandfather well enough, having only remembered visiting him once or twice, and my daughter doesn't remember visiting her great-grandmother (although she has), so I think it was a factor in our cases.

  7. I'm STILL that way at funerals. Saying goodbye is kind of a part of life; sometimes it just lasts longer.

    Don't forget that when you do something to help others, it may not be remembered, acknowledged, or even noticed – but the effect will last, possibly creating a 'domino' sequence that makes a greater difference than you can imagine.

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