I began my lessons in grief and loss early on. My paternal grandfather died when I was ten years old after visiting us in Canada. Even though I’d only known him briefly, I was heartbroken. But it was a few years before, through family events and stories, I was introduced to death.
My maternal grandmother was just five feet, two inches tall, but to me, the memories she carried made her larger than life. I learned about great grandparents, great-aunts, grand-uncles, and other family members. Whether we were told we resembled them in appearance or personality or had similar hopes, dreams, and struggles, the stories she shared became real. They were no longer just an account of our family but a way for us to feel connected to relatives we never knew and who were now gone.
Nana used words to draw pictures for us. We didn’t need the family photos she’d stored away to make her recollection of a memory complete. We had her.
A drive to town on a rough dirt road had Nana gripping her seat while her brother steered around the deep ruts. Her extended family either occupied the same dwelling or lived nearby. The “aunts” were cared for by the entire family because that is what families did.
The Second World War brought much hardship for my grandparents. My grandfather, a steam engineer, was forced to work for the Japanese military. Food was scarce, and a diet of lentils and rice was a mainstay for the whole family. Allied bombings were frequent and led to a family member’s fatal injury.
I wish I’d recorded some of those memories. But I was too young to write them up or appreciate the richness and infinite value of a memoir.
Even so, along with the stories to draw us in, each person Nana spoke about became alive to us. Gone, but not forgotten, their spirit lived on through her storytelling.
There was sadness, knowing I would never meet any of these people. Death is a difficult concept to comprehend for someone young, but Nana’s “retelling” honoured their death and made it possible for us to mourn them, too.
I value those priceless anecdotes, not because they were funny or even heart-warming, but because they are a past that I will never know. Those stories are now part of me to pass on to others.
The tangible become less significant as our grey hairs creep in. Our treasures are not necessarily golden or shiny or even valuable. Instead, we cherish what we long to hold onto.
God Bless them.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and may perpetual light shine upon them.
May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed
through the mercy of God rest in peace.
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