Holding Tight to Memories

Susan Smith, writer and editor, shares three different stories about how people have honored their grief and created memories so they could move into the future holding onto love shared. These three women have very different stories but all of the women had the goal of creating memories and remembering the love. Perhaps you will find an idea for you.

by Susan Smith

Louanne Stanton stood at the foot of her dying 35-year-old-husband’s bed. They had one ideal marriage, two daughters, and more laughs than they could count. But then he had suffered a sudden, violent stroke, and two days later was pronounced brain dead.

Stanton, soon to be a 32-year-old widow, looked at the doctor. “Where’s the book?” she asked.

“The book?” he responded, confused.

“What book?” “The book that tells me what to do next.”

What she did next she did by instinct. She shrugged off the traditions of funerals and threw a funeral that reflected the joy of their marriage. Everyone dressed up. She wore his favorite red evening gown, which she had worn the previous New Year’s Eve. The music was untraditional, the eulogy original. At the back of the room she placed memorabilia pictures, some of Dennis’s writings, and a book.

“The book was for me,” she says. “It was for my daughters and my unborn grandchildren.”

The book was one of the many ways grievers have found to gather up and celebrate cherished memories of their loved ones.

Stanton says she had been thinking of all the people who knew Dennis from all facets of his life. She had been thinking of all the “great stories” they would be sharing during the days of visitation. And she had been thinking that once these people were gone, so were their stories. “Yet another time I needed a book,” she says. She went to a card store and bought a wedding album, tore out all the pages, and had a printer create pages that carried a “Memories” banner across the top. She slipped a current photo of her and Dennis into the cover and took the book to the funeral home. She asked everyone to fill its pages with favorite memories of Dennis.

“Some people wrote two lines, some wrote half a page. Others took pages and mailed them to me later. There were many occasions in the months to follow when I would make my daily trip to the mailbox and find yet another story of Dennis. What healing took place as I read the stories and cried, laughed, and remembered him time and time again.”

Unlike Stanton, Louise Silk had time to watch her dad’s health decline as he cared for his wife who had Alzheimer’s. But still she was unprepared for his death when he went in for a standard heart catheterization and never regained consciousness.

For the second time that year, Silk had the daunting duty of going through her parents’ belongs. She had done so earlier when they moved into an assisted living facility. Both times, because she is a quilt maker, she collected pieces of clothing and cloth with which she would craft a quilt of memories.

At first, she was “overwhelmed with the array of cloth I had carted back to my studio,” she says. “There were numerous cross-stitched tablecloths, all kinds of slippery knitted sweaters, fancy formal wear, brightly colored golf attire, and heavy Turkish towels.” It took two years to cut up the clothing, but “making the quilts was the only way I knew to grieve my loss.”

Sorting though the clothing and textiles gave Silk time to review their lives and her feelings, she says, as well as embrace and release her sorrow. “I spent unaccountable days on the first quilt. Cutting into the clothing, hacking off sleeves, salvaging pockets, and ripping linings. Every stitch was by hand, fueled by memories and tears.” As she finished off the first quilt, Silk went to “that typical quilter’s yen to create another,” and by the time she was finished had created one quilt for each of her parents’ seven grandchildren.

But one photo, printed to Silk’s studio wall for years now, still called to her. It showed her parents, young, carefree, and “strutting on the boardwalk of Atlantic City.” They looked light and airy, she says, unlike the heavy fabrics she had amassed. She made a life-size pattern of their image, and waited.

Ultimately, she dug into a “magnificent collection” of blue and red silk her parents had purchased her on their travels. “I had held onto the fabric for years. It was too precious and at the same time too difficult to use. I needed a bigger purpose for those gems. Now, I had it.”

Silk made the quilt portraying her parents as she remembers them, “light and airy, young and hopeful, and, as my mom would have said, ‘full of piss and vinegar.'" Titled, “Sadye and Howie,” it was the culmination of her venture to piece together and find delight in her memories.

Kathryn Powell was only 9-years-old when her Aunt Janice lost a battle with thyroid cancer that had raged for as long as little Kathryn had been alive. She remembers the last time she saw her aunt, peeking around the bedroom door, too afraid to go in. She remembers her parents rushing to her aunt and uncle’s house at 1:30 am the night her aunt died. She remembers the funeral. Most of all, she remembers the flowers. All those flowers.

“There were more flowers than the adults knew what to do with,” she says with some regret. “The sad thing was that they were so beautiful and they were gone so soon.”

Today, Powell wishes her family had known about donor advised funds, which allow friends and families to put money otherwise spent on flowers into a memorial fund that the family can direct. Creating a living memorial, a donor advised fund allows the family to set aside the money given in memory of their loved one, and then donate it to charities important to their loved one.

Families control when the gifts are made, Powell says, as well as how large the gifts are. “There’s no ongoing relationship between the family and the charity,” she says. “The family makes the decisions as long as the fund exists.”

Had Powell’s family known about such funds in 1987, they would have made gifts to the American Cancer Society and the Art Institute of Houston, where Aunt Janice studied to become and interior designer. “Not only would we have invested in Aunt Janice’s memory,” she says, “we would have invested in the future.”

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