Keeping the Torch Lit
by Jamison Koehler on July 29, 2015
(Re-printed from the Grosse Pointe News)
Two milestones mark either end of my summer. My 90-year-old mother died at the end of May and my youngest child will leave for college at the end of August. Within the space of three months, I will have become both an orphan and an empty nester.
The death of a second parent comes with an entirely different set of issues than the loss of the first. When my father died nearly five years ago, we focused on how best to support our mother. She remained in the house in Amherst, MA the two of them had shared for nearly 60 years of marriage and appeared to carry on with her usual blend of positive energy and stoicism.
Over the years, however, her activities lessened, her interests waned and her mind deteriorated. Years of purpose — raising five children, sharing the duties of a home and family with a husband, traveling extensively abroad, and pursuing career as a teacher — had narrowed to a chair in her living room.
In some respects, her death brought closure. We took comfort in seeing the urn containing her ashes placed in the ground next to our father’s gravestone — “a beautiful spot on the slope of a hill, just a couple of feet from where the grass meets the woods,” as my brother described it in his eulogy. My sister posted a picture on Facebook of our parents walking on the beach in Cape Cod, the site of our annual family vacation.
“I like thinking of grandmother and grandfather walking off into the distance, hand in hand,” my younger daughter texted me. So do I, I responded.
Now that the two of them are together again, their five progeny are left to settle matters with their house, belongings and affairs. Decisions that were once theirs now rest with us. The house: do we keep, rent or sell it? Should we put down a deposit for one more summer at the Cape, extending our family reunion one more year? What do we do with the accumulation of 60 years of marriage; how do we decide what should be saved, what discarded and what sold?
Fortunately, there are companies that help families with these decisions. I am familiar with such companies in Grosse Pointe, but was not aware what an incredible resource they are, saving not just time and money but emotional distress. They salvage what should be salvaged and dispose of what, were the decision up to us, would cause considerable anguish.
My siblings and I have met twice to go over financial matters and to lay claim to what means the most to each of us. We trust each other with these decisions. One of my brothers asked for the clay lion our father made in a ceramics class decades ago. The lion, a mainstay in the window of our father’s study, now has a new place of repose on the windowsill of my brother’s home office in Baltimore. My other brother asked for our mother’s journals and her unpublished mythology manuscript. (We joke he knows something we don’t; our mother’s journals will earn him millions on the New York Times bestseller list!)
I requested the blue china my father, an officer in the Navy during World War II, bought in Japan and carried across his back for his mother during a Christmas furlough. I have always held a romantic image of my father on the dock in his white dress uniform with that box of china on his back, the destroyer the USS Southerland in the distance.
My siblings and I will get together one more time at our childhood home before the estate company descends upon us. We will make decisions we can never undo. The increased communication has brought us to a new level of trust and closeness. We have set up a group message on our phones and sometimes we get more accomplished via text than in person. Technology helps us transcend distance and proceed along this journey to becoming the people our parents once were: that “older” generation our children look to for advice, comfort and support. We must keep the torch of purpose lit for them.
I believe I will survive this transition in my life and enjoy even stronger family bonds as a result. As for that other milestone? My husband and I drive our son to Emerson College in Boston on August 22. Stay tuned.