It All Amounts to Something

Seeing the Better Angels of the Living

The author's late mother-in-law notices a rainbow. | Credit: Courtesy

It’s always the little artifacts that get me, the fragments of a life, the seemingly insignificant pieces that are so fraught and poignant. In my mother-in-law’s nearly empty drawer, there was a small tortoiseshell comb, a tiny mirror, and a silver tube of pink lipstick compressed into a neat, flat nub by years of sparing application. There were very few occasions when she would have worn lipstick, but here it was, a nod to her feminine side, like the linen blouse in her closet, with a panel of lace at the back, her single dress-up garment, hanging alongside the polo shirts and easy-wash casuals like a lady among workers — everything in colors of the sky, the sea, or sand. 

And there was my father-in-law’s London Fog trench coat, soft with 30 years of wear, pockets still stuffed with yellowed newspaper pages of unfinished crossword puzzles and an old, crushed packer hat. There were his engineering textbooks from his wartime years at MIT, inscribed with his Boston address, all within reach in case he needed to refresh his memory about the principles of refrigeration or the tensile strength of steel. There were round tin boxes filled with rolls of black-and-white photographic negatives, his stamp collection, and a lifetime accumulation of classical music, Mozart most beloved. A shipbuilder and civil engineer, he was an avid reader all his life, curious and enthusiastic about everything

My husband’s parents enjoyed 70 years of marriage, and both lived into their nineties, and although there is sadness in every loss and ending, their lives were not tragic, and their dying seems somehow appropriate, a normal passage, a fading rather than a ripping away, and in this they are different from the lost loved ones of my own family of origin. Still, it will be a long time before I step outside without the urge to veer toward my mother-in-law’s house to say hello, before I can water her garden without a sense of her watching me through the window, or before I no longer half-expect to see her gathering grapefruits or pulling up weeds, a tiny white-haired lady in a baseball cap and blue sweater. But the pang comes mostly with the discoveries of long-cherished letters and mementos whose very preservation reveals more tenderness and sentiment than was ever overtly expressed. And there are surges of yearning upon unearthing the funny little pocket-stashes and the unexpected vestige of feminine vanity. All around are prompts for sighing, and great shifts are unfolding in the patterns of our lives. 

I think one of the characteristics of being human is an inability to fully perceive how precious and irreplaceable someone is until that someone is gone. We see most munificently when looking back, more readily charmed by the foibles and quirks, more willing to discern the pain and good intentions behind actions that caused hurt, more inclined to forgive and call the whole thing love. 

When my own father died, the world as I knew it abruptly changed, but what rendered both his presence and vast absence real to me was the sight of his eyeglasses on the kitchen counter, alongside his car keys, and the list, in his dear and familiar handwriting, of what he had to do that day. Those artifacts spoke eloquently of his sense of duty and aspiration. He was forever driving and striving, and sometimes that was hard on those of us who hadn’t yet realized, despite his warnings, that the clock was ticking, and we wouldn’t always have the luxury of being young and appallingly stupid. It’s too easy for me to think back now about the mistakes I made vis-à-vis my parents and two deceased siblings, that quartet of deaths within my family of origin that still have the power to torment me; self-forgiveness remains my personal goal. But lately, when I allow myself, I linger too on the unique and beautiful qualities each of them possessed, remembering the times when they were funny and brave and said things in those voices that I’ll never hear again, and I know that all that love amounts to something. 

It does … doesn’t it? 

And since we don’t have the option of going back to rewrite it, we might as well continue the story in a positive frame of mind. 

Anyway, as I sorted through the contents of my in-laws’ domains, their endearing singularity became ever more apparent, and I felt profound affection for them both, which, when minus guilt and painful emotional complexity, for which there would be no reason here, is very sweet, affirmative, and energizing. I even decided that I would henceforth try to look at others while they are still alive and in our midst with the kindly eyes usually reserved for the dead. I would try to see the charm of the living folks I encounter, and the better angels of their natures; I would try to more fully appreciate each one-of-a-kind composition. 

Luckily for me, an event presented itself that very afternoon which was perfect for test-driving this perspective: the birthday party of an 8-year-old. The very number, an infinity sign on its side, suggested limitless possibility. I put on a green and white party dress and set out walking in the howling Gaviota wind. A cacophony of cattle sounds drifted toward me from a nearby corral, but soon I was met by the laughter and shouts of children as I approached the festivities. And they were beautiful children, of course. Sun-kissed, well-loved local children, growing up in wonderland. The air smelled of hot dogs and ocean. Everyone was gratefully vaccinated, masks off, faces shining, snippets of conversation that were impossible to sustain, but a great camaraderie prevailed, a sense of emerging from a tunnel, cautiously hopeful, not the same, but maybe better. “This feels so normal,” the grown-ups said, “so wonderfully normal.” 

And of course, we understand now that nothing ever was normal or ordinary. It was always a miracle, all of it. 

What will I leave behind? Words, mostly. Too much paper. Random artifacts that won’t mean much if you don’t know the stories behind them. An oak tree, I hope.


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