This has been a sad year. After having just lost my Mom to cancer 2 ½ short years ago, my Dad suddenly passed away last month. I’ve found myself thinking profoundly over the past few weeks about legacy, pondering deeply what my parents left me with, not so much physically as metaphorically. I am grateful for the solid foundation they gave me through encouragement, support, education, and sometimes a firm hand and boundaries that enabled me to become who I am today. As a child, my parents fostered a love of reading, learning and books. They took our family to museums where we could steep ourselves in history, science, and art. They encouraged us to try our own hand at playing instruments and filled our house with music ranging from jazz to classical to the occasional foray into folk and pop music. They took us on vacations to beautiful national parks. They made sure we all learned to swim during summer vacations. They gave me and my siblings the gift of college educations. We had regular family dinners, homemade and at the table together. We discussed what we learned at school, politics, and the world. We watched the nightly news and the Muppet Show together in the evenings. We laughed a lot and sometimes cried. I wonder often how children grow and prosper when they don’t have the luxury of being raised by parents like mine.
In the 2 ½ years since we lost my Mom, I began going to my Dad’s house to help with some chores and make dinner. We had some wonderful conversations over those dinners and I became much closer to my Dad. Frequently our conversations in that first year were on the topic of stones. The headstone on their grave was not a quick decision. Dad mulled over multiple designs and types of stone for months, deliberating with all of us as to which one would best serve as not only a marker, but a memorial. We decided that a piece of poetry or writing would make it all the more special and Dad perused multiple possible excerpts before finally settling on a portion of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud.” Once the stone, design, and words were settled upon, drafts and revisions circulated among family members until, finally, many months after Mom was laid to rest, the perfect headstone was set in place at Lower Brandywine.
Throughout those months and discussions about the headstone, Dad and I also talked about the predominantly Jewish custom of leaving stones when visiting graves of loved ones. There are multiple explanations for this custom in Jewish lore. The oldest historical connection actually comes from ancient times when people would mark graves with simple piles of stones. It was a practice that ultimately evolved into grave markers with inscriptions and was not solely a Jewish custom. Aside from the historical significance of piles of stones, there are multiple stories that emerge explaining the custom. The associations Dad and I talked about most were 1) the idea of stones symbolizing endurance 2) the leaving of stones as a sign that “I was here” visiting this memorial and 3) stones left as a tribute meaning “you were remembered”. Once the headstone was in place, Dad and I both began leaving stones when we paid a visit to the gravesite. Dad left a stone he collected at Trinity University in San Antonio as well as stones from family vacations to Graves Mountain and Lake George. I left stones from various places I visited as well as stones I just liked.
Unfortunately, some well-meaning soul has cleared away all of our stones. Maybe someone who recalled Mom’s dislike of kitschy disorder left as memorials or maybe just someone trying to keep the cemetery clean and orderly. I feel certain Mom would be just fine with this custom of leaving stones, however, and I invite any and all of you to leave your own stones if you happen to visit. Both Mom and Dad were filled with fortitude and lived rich, full lives. The legacy they left is solid as stone; it endures and lives on in the memory of everyone their lives touched.
Holy Sonnets: Death Be Not Proud
By John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s deliovery,
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shallt die.
(Spellings in the original Donne poems are slightly different and the inscription on my parents’ gravestone uses the original Donne spellings.)