Nedra and I attended a funeral for a friend of Nedra’s mother and cousin. She was 97 years old and lived in her own home rather than an assisted living facility. Enid Record was also a quilter and she would sometimes join Nedra’s cousin and drive down to Ocean Grove NJ to meet a quilting group from Long Island, NY that Nedra and her quilters called “The off the wall quilters.” The funeral service was held in her church in a tiny town called Michigantown, Indiana which is about 40 miles north of Indianapolis. Funerals are wonderful times to bring back and reinforce memories. The pictures of Enid’s life showed her from childhood to very old age as she lived her entire life in Michigantown, going to school, getting married, raising a family, and enjoying her life. But the minister appealed to a longer memory of her influence on the church, his own life, and the people she loved. He also invoked a life for her after death, waiting for her based on her accomplishments which included dozens of quilts she made as fund raisers to help others and her church.
Reality has taught me a different experience about memory. It fades. We cling to memories of those we knew. But we cannot pass on much about them to our children. By the time we hit our great- grandparents, with rare exceptions, we know little about them. Occasionally you find an ancestor who fought in the Civil War or the Revolutionary War but what they did is usually summed in a sentence. But those fragments can be explored by effort as genealogists sometimes find when they research a dead ancestor who lived 300 years ago. For the most part the vast majority of humanity has no idea who their ancestors were 400 or 500 years ago. The few who do are usually tied to royalty. What does it mean then to have a memory of our lives? For most of humanity we will join the anonymity of the billions who lived centuries before us. Memory also fades in the elderly, especially in those with Alzheimer syndrome or a dementia from other neurological diseases. I remember visiting a colleague, George Williams, an esteemed evolutionary biologist who was in the early stages of Alzheimer syndrome. “I was an evolutionary biologist,” he lamented, “I wish I still was.”
Those who write books have a better chance of being remembered, but even those authors depend on luck. Only a few of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides have survived. What of the hundreds of playwrights whose works were not as treasured in their time? They are gone, both their works and their names for the most part. Most of the wealthy landowners of Athens are also gone and so are their mansions, their collections of art and clothing, furniture, and gold and other precious jewelry or household implements. Our vanities may give us satisfactions and status but they fade quickly after we are gone. We should appreciate our lives for the contributions we have made to others even if later generations do not remember our names.