Just before Thanksgiving, I received word that my cousin John passed away. His memorial was held the Saturday following the holiday. There isn’t anything that makes me think about life and death more than the passing of a friend or relative (except perhaps my cancer diagnosis). The fact it happened during a time when I was with nearly all of my family made it that much more significant.
I hadn’t seen John in about six years, and we spent no time together as adults. Still, the news of his death hit me hard. In part, it was the sudden and unexpected nature of his passing from a heart attack, but more so that our shared childhood adventures are so much of my past, and now he is gone.
It’s not a stretch to say that I grew up at John’s house. When my parents left town on occasion, I would stay with John and his sisters. When I wanted to have a fun weekend, I would ask my parents to let me go to John’s. My aunt and uncle were great substitute parents, and John had all the cool toys my parents wouldn’t let me have: motorcycles and BB guns. He lived on acreage in a rural setting, and we spent many hours exploring and playing on the open land and in the irrigation canals.
Thinking about John’s passing, I realize that John and those adventures are all part of my most memorable childhood stories, the kind you tell your own kids decades later when you want to share what Dad was like as a kid.
A couple of the stories I’ve shared many times with family and friends stand out.
Once when I was young, my parents took me to John’s to spend the weekend. They were never fans of motorcycles, but when they dropped me off, I was expressly instructed to stay off the devil machines. Of course, John and I rode his dirt bike that weekend. It wasn’t enough, though, to ride the motorcycles. John was going to teach me how to jump the bike out of the dry irrigation canals.
The idea is simple enough: drive down one side of the ditch and up the next, “catching air” as you escape the ditch. John did it like a pro. His riding skills surpassed mine by a lot. On my first attempt, I rolled down into the ditch and throttled the bike up the other side. Unfortunately, I failed to maneuver the short distance between the canal and the barbed-wire fence running along the canal. My failure is chronicled to this day by the scar on my right cheek where 36 stitches closed the gash torn in my skin by the fence.
In one of the outbuildings at John’s, there were several animal traps hanging on the wall. John told me that they were his and that he used them to trap muskrats in the canals. From that moment, I wanted to trap muskrats. One winter weekend, we finally got the chance to set John’s traps along the canal. When we checked them later, we found a muskrat trapped by the leg, but still alive. John handed me the bat he’d been carrying, offering me the honor of the kill. The muskrat looked at me with sad muskrat eyes and I couldn’t do it. It’s really a wonder I’m not a vegetarian today, but I will never forget that moment.
These are my stories. At John’s memorial, friends, family, and co-workers shared story after story about John. It was a really special tribute to a great guy.
John’s memorial reminded me that we are our memories and the memories held by others.
John left us suddenly and without warning. I haven’t spent significant time with him in almost 40 years. Even so, he lives after his passing in my vivid memories and the many, many stories shared by others at his memorial.
When I look back on my childhood, who I was, and the things that influenced me, I remember those stories and so many more that live on in me all these years later. Those adventures shape who I am today.
My wife often says it is our job as parents to make memories for our kids. Taking them to Disneyland, sharing family traditions, showing them the world we live in, is all about helping them make memories. I know we’ve done a good job of this with our children, and now I’m working on making memories with our grandchildren. I hope when they are my age they will smile when they think about their crazy Papa.
As long as we’ve been married, my wife and I have hosted Thanksgiving in our home. When we were in school, we invited friends who couldn’t get home to their families. Today, our entire family and many significant others join us for a day of fun and food that often spills over through the weekend. It’s been so many years that the traditions and stories of past Thanksgivings are etched in the everlasting memories of everyone. It is a highlight of our year, and a highlight of my life. Each year the traditions are the same, but each year is different, and we build on the memories of the past.
There is a 100 percent chance I will leave this existence, regardless of multiple myeloma. It is also a certainty that family and friends will remain here and go on without me. If I’m lucky, and I believe I’m very blessed, I will continue to live in their memories.
My family, my children, my grandchildren will celebrate Thanksgiving after I’m gone. It is possible the location will change over time. The people able to attend may also change. Still, many of the traditions will continue. The stories of our past holidays will be told with joy and laughter.
Each day it is our responsibility to keep the memories of those who have gone before us alive. It is our responsibility to imbue memories of ourselves in those we contact. John’s memorial service reminded me that we get to choose the nature of those memories.
We are our memories and the memories held by others.
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Photo Credit: (c) 2010 Mark Pouley
An aesthetically pleasing landscape photo is good, but a really good image should tell a story. In some rare cases, a photo can also stir deep emotional feelings, at least for some of the people viewing it. For me and my family, this is such an image. This is the very first view of the Twin Lakes we see as we drive down the mountain road into the Inchelium area. This familiar glimpse of the water means our long trip is nearly done, and we are about to enjoy the pleasures of the lake, the outdoors, and the people.