Memento Mori

30 Oct 2007

So, I have been falling behind on all sorts of commitments – I was excited by the prospect of working through a bunch of Haskell exercises and get more serious about learning Haskell; I was learning all kinds of new jazz chord voicings in my guitar lessons; I had plans to record another podcast with original music.

Instead life intervened, and my mother died after a brief, unexpected illness, and then Grace’s father died just under two weeks later. We’ve had a lot of death recently – my grandmother died two years ago, at the age of 102, and Grace’s brother died at the age of 40 just last year.

“Memento Mori” means roughly “remember, you will die.” There’s nothing quite like sitting in a room with the dead body of your mother to make this clear. It has been my task this year to think pretty hard about this, and to try to start planning for it, beginning what I hope will be my “ars moriendi” – the art of dying well. And, I hope, a lot later.

I’ve been living on a kind of “split screen” for the last few months – on the one hand, working on retirement plans and investments for my children’s education and imagining what Grace and I are going to do for the next five, ten, twenty, or forty years, and on the other hand preparing our wills and making sure we are properly insured. It’s been a strange combination of unnerving and reassuring. My grandmother made it to 102, and I have her genes, so I could have 60 years or more to live. Or I could take after my mother, and have 30.

Or none.

On the way to work this morning, as often happens, the light changed for me to make a left turn. I did my usual deep breath, look both ways, count slowly to five – to wait for whoever was going to blast through the red light to go ahead and do so – and then started to enter the intersection. At the ten second mark a woman in an SUV blasted through the red light, going way over the speed limit, talking on her cell phone. Missing me by only a few feet.

Memento, mori.

A year ago someone did this and I was hit by such an attack of road rage I actually chased him down, cut him off and forced him over to the side of the road, then got out of the car and chewed him out for nearly leaving my children fatherless. I can’t advocate that behavior. Today I took a deep breath and let it go.

It would be a stupid way to die. But so is cancer, or heart disease. And we don’t have control over everything. And believing that we do is a recipe for a heart attack.

There is good news in our lives too – we just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary and baby Sam’s first birthday and baby Veronica’s third birthday – but these celebrations have all been kind of subdued.

There have been a whole bunch of miscellaneous estate issues – fortunately my stepfather and the estate attorney have been managing most of this – but my stepfather wants to sell the house he and my mother shared in the very short term, and so is trying to dispose of my mother’s personal effects very quickly.

This means a house full of furniture, clothes, and personal effects. Since I’m the son that lives a mere 250 miles away, instead of 2,000, I’m the one that has to figure out how to triage everything and move anything we want to save into our rather cramped and cluttered apartment. Which means a major purge of our existing clutter, and also coming to terms with letting go of almost all of my mother’s personal effects.

Along the way I discovered that my mother and my grandmother had amassed a huge collection of family photos and documents, going back several generations. In addition, hundreds of documents: letters, journals, autobiographies, even short stories.

We have pictures of people I think are my son’s great, great, great, great grandparents. I have not identified everyone yet, but there may even be pictures of a five-greats grandparent. My grandmother was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which means she can trace her ancestry back to 1776. Which means my daughter can, too. That’s good, because it appears from the organization’s somewhat controversial history that they could use more black members!

There are Civil-war era photos. Cyanotypes from around 1900. Thousands of photographs – perhaps 10,000. The oldest ones are mostly in pretty good shape, but many of the color photos, for example instant photographs from the 1970s, are fading badly. And there are some serious preservation issues – photos that were recently annotated in ballpoint pen ink, which is acidic and eats through the paper until it stains the emulsion. Photos torn from albums and scotch-taped into new albums, or bundled together with paper clips or rubber bands and stuffed into acidic paper envelopes and shoe boxes.

I decided, and Grace concurred, that I was going to engage on a preservation and archiving project. We can’t let the collection of family history end with my generation. So I have embarked on that project, which will consist of organizing, cataloging and propagating both the original artifacts and digital derived works.

So, for the immediate future, this project is now my highest priority. My other projects, blogs, and commitments are largely at a standstill. I apologize to everyone who I’ve ignored or failed to follow up with on some promise or another. But I think my children and grandchildren will approve.

Anyone interested can follow my progress on my blog, The Marcella Armstrong Memorial Collection.

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