It was a bright, clear Summery sort of Sunday recently when the phone rang and my mom told me that one of my great-aunts had passed away.
She was 87 years old, and had lived a long, full life.
While she never married, or had kids of her own, her many nieces and nephews gave her lots of experience with kiddos. My sister and I got to know her when she moved from her home state of Massachusetts out to our little corner of the prairie for a while. I can remember the sharp smells in the hallway outside her apartment, the furnishings that were comfortable but not too nice that the owner would worry about kids horsing around on them. She loved dachshunds, and had one named Tinsel; with endearing early childhood speech impediments, the best we could manage was “Tinnel.”
Most clearly, though, I can remember her laugh. How she seemed to laugh with her entire body. It was a great laugh – that’s what I’ll miss the most about her. As my Mom and I talked briefly about my great-aunt’s passing, she asked, “do you remember the s’mores story?” Those words opened up a often-told scene in my mind. Or so I thought. (That’s foreshadowing, folks. Set that aside for later on in the post.)
I remember a story of myself and my sister with our great aunt and parents on a picnic by the river. It was fall, and we made s’mores to finish off the meal. My sister was old enough to have her own s’more, but little enough to still sit in her car seat that my parents had toted out of the car for her to comfortably sit in on the picnic. In her attempts to eat that s’more, she wound up pretty much gluing herself into her car seat with the s’more and its melted marshmallow gooiness — a sight so comical that our great-aunt got a tremendous belly laugh out of the whole experience. And a memory was born.
Inspired by this memory, I put together a gift basket full of ingredients to make the s’mores. I added some colorful roasting forks to the box, wrote a letter telling the story and explaining why I wanted to send this in lieu of flowers, and dropped the box off at the local post office. On its way, out of my hands to the family back East who were settling her estate and arranging her memorial according to her wishes.
The day after my visit to the post office, at a wedding my parents and sister and I were attending, my mother – who I had shared my idea with – started telling the story during the reception to some of the other people at our table. The funny thing was, the story she shared differed in a few details. Like who the baby was in the car seat, and the fact that my sister was not yet born. This seemed affirmed by my sister’s pointing across the table to me and loudly exclaiming, “I remember hearing this!” And right there, at that table, a nasty knot of dread began forming in my gut. Had I told the wrong story? Did I mix up food disaster stories involving small children? (There’s a great one involving an attempt at blueberry picking. Another story for another time.) How did I screw this up in my brain? What kind of awkwardness have I just set up for my poor parents, who would be traveling out East for the memorial?
That box, with all the chocolate bars, graham crackers, marshmallows, and letter containing a possibly false story was already en route. No way to stop it.
Memories are funny things. They can shift and blur over time. Every now and then, my sister or myself will correct our parents on some random memory of an event assigned to one child that was actually experienced by the other. But given my sister’s enthusiastic endorsement of my mother’s story, I figured that either she was covering for our mom or I had totally botched the recall on that old story.
Then it hit me: regardless of who the baby was in the car seat, marshmallow-glued in place, it did not change the fact that it made a beautiful memory. It would not have dampened my desire to send the makings of more memories with another generation of our family as a way to honor that great lady’s laugh. It was the spirit of that memory, not the nitty-gritty, that moved me to do what I did.
I got word from the recipient that the basket had arrived, and plans were afoot for a family cookout and s’mores feast to enjoy and remember my great-aunt. So, as I drove them to the airport to catch their flight out east to the memorial, I shared the gaffe with my parents, who pretty much waved it off with a “doesn’t matter, does it? You’re a good storyteller, so your version probably sounds much better anyway.”
The lesson learned? The heart can motivate more accurately than most memories. And create more endearing moments than any memory can.