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What Remains

Note: I wrote this on what would have been my mother's 90th birthday.

When someone close to me dies, I unconsciously take on some of their habits or characteristics. This can assume any form—one time it was a craving for chocolate-covered cherries; another time I listened to Broadway show music for weeks. I’ve seen this happen to other people, most often bonding with someone else close to the deceased.

We’re doing what we can to replace the person. We’re continuing their work in the world.

My mother was almost compulsive about acknowledging birthdays, anniversaries, and other significant events. Her friends and family were so used to getting birthday cards from her that if by chance they didn’t one year, they’d call to be sure she was all right. She recorded everyone’s dates in a small leather-bound book, noting, for children, the year of their birth so she could choose age-appropriate cards. She shopped mid-month at a greeting card store with such regularity that the clerks saved sale items or bonus cards for her. She signed and addressed a month’s worth of cards, putting the date in the corner of the envelope where the stamp would later go, and she kept them stacked chronologically on a hall table.

My mother gave me a book like hers with family members’ birthdays penned in. I tried to emulate her habit, but somehow it was just too much for me: too much brain ache to choose the perfect card, too much money as the price of a Hallmark climbed, too much resentment when people didn’t reciprocate with cards for my birthday.
Until December 1, 2005, when my mother died, at 87, she continued sending cards to a dwindling number of peers and a growing number of great-grandchildren.

After her funeral I went home and, for the first time in my life, had an urge to send out Christmas cards. I’m Jewish and I don’t even celebrate Christmas. My friends don’t expect a holiday card from me. But after my mother’s death I rummaged through old address books, Roladexes and email boxes, collecting names and addresses, and hustled to get the cards out by the 25th. I did not connect this sudden compulsion with my mother’s death until Valentines Day, when Hallmark fever struck again.

There I was, drawing corny hearts and xxxes on cards for my grandsons, my aunt, and my children, when it dawned on me that this was all very out of character. I signed a card to my sister and, writing her address on the envelope, realized this was no pro forma gesture. My sister would open this envelope on the first Valentines Day of her life without a card from my mother. This card, I knew, would matter.

That’s when I understood why I’d suddenly turned into an avid sender of greeting cards. I was replacing my mother as best I could. I was doing her work in the world.

What gesture or habit of mine will my children adopt when I’m gone? Will they write fervent letters to their Congressmen on issues of social justice? Create themed soundtracks in response to events like 911 or Hurricane Katrina? I don’t know what exactly they’ll take on of mine—but there will be something, even if it’s only doing crossword puzzles on airplanes.

When someone close to us dies, we continue their work in the world. It’s our way of keeping them alive.