Every culture through the ages has developed rituals to both honor and remember the dead.
I’m not talking about funeral rites or methods of disposing of the body so much as ways to keep alive the memories of loved ones.
My mom died fifteen years ago after suffering a long, slow decline from Parkinson’s disease. She was my hero and best friend. A powerful advocate for children and for the rights of marginalized and “different” people—poor people, folks with mental or developmental disabilities, genuine eccentrics—she lives on in the better parts of me.
I still think of her every day, sometimes finding myself on the verge of picking up the phone to call her with some interesting tidbit of news or some “crackin’ good story” I know she’d enjoy.
I spoke a eulogy at her memorial service, wearing her old denim hat with the folded brim and the large fake sunflower attached. Mom loved flowers of every sort, wild and cultivated. Especially sunflowers. We handed out packets of sunflower seeds to people who attended the service, encouraging people to plant them or feed them to the birds, since Trudy also loved birds.
When it came time to clean out her small house at the edge of a pond in north-central Vermont, I took home half a dozen cotton t-shirts, a couple of sweatshirts and a few dish towels with a lot of wear left in them, along with the denim hat, her World-War-II-era canning tongs, an old hand-held eggbeater, and a couple of throw pillows that smelled of her house for a decade.
All these humble, useful objects served and still serve me as talismans, protecting me with her love, her energy, and her boundless belief in me.
I started wearing the t-shirts right away, mostly as pajama tops. Over the years, the brightly colored shirts began to fray. When I hung them on the clothesline, they reminded me of Buddhist prayer flags flying in long strings at base camps for Himalyan expeditions and other venues in that prt of the world.
The flags themselves, which predated Buddhism and even writing, today come imprinted with verses from the Buddhist scriptures (sutras). As the flimsy cotton flags gradually disintegrate in the wind and weather, the blessings contained in their material substance are set free, dispersed around the globe and into the common consciousness.
I loved that idea, that everything Trudy embodied got stored in those t-shirts, ten gradually dispersed on the winds as the shirts continued fraying and shredding. After the shirts became far too threadbare to wear, I retired what was left of them to the cleaning-rag bag.
Mom, who kept a much tidier house than mine, would have loved that. “I don’t want to be beautiful, rich, or well-known,” she often said. “I just want to be useful.”