I come from a very small family. I am an only child, as is my father. My mother, Margaret, has gone to God, and my few cousins live far away. The consequence of all of this is that the number of people who remember me as a young child are very few. But being remembered for who we once were is an indispensable part of life. Memory grounds us in the past, while allowing us to live in the present with our eyes set on the future.
Recently, I was blessed to be able to meet one of the few people who remember my early life. Her name is Mary and she and my late mother were best of friends. Mary was busy raising her children at exactly the same time as my mother was raising me. We all went to the same Catholic parish and school and we all took violin lessons together. In short, our experiences of life were basically the same.
Times change, of course, and life can sometimes bring its heartaches. Mary’s husband, Morris, died of cancer when their children were still in high school and my parent’s marriage died soon afterwards. Distance and circumstance affected their friendship, but my mother, Margaret, and her friend, Mary, still stayed in touch through the years. And Mary was present at my mother’s funeral.
Meeting my mother’s friend again after many years, I was initially struck by how little people actually change. We grow older, of course, but a person’s soul remains a reflection of who they really are. A laugh, a particular interest and the tone of one’s voice all remain the same.
And it was this that I experienced when I visited my mother’s friend. Everything in the home was as I remembered. The piano was the same. The radio was the same. The pictures on the refrigerator were the same. After we talked for a while, Mary served a lovely lunch — using the very china plates my mother had given her as a gift some 30 years ago. And the meal came from a recipe which was my mother’s.
And then it happened. While we were sitting at the dining room table and remembering those we loved, it seemed as if Morris and Margaret were there with us. Of course they were not there physically. But they were present. It is difficult to put into words, but this mysterious presence was one of the most moving and mystical experiences of my life.
Today, we often find it difficult to remember. We have forgotten the cost of what it took to make us free and, drop by drop, our freedoms are taken away. We have failed to remember the blessings of marriage, family life and authentic friendship, and we find ourselves increasingly isolated and lonely. We have forgotten why Jesus came to save us and we try instead to save ourselves. Is it any wonder that the most feared disease of our time is memory loss? We have forgotten many things in our society — and all to our peril.
The solution, I think, to our sorry plight is found in knowing history and embracing memory. Remember how good God has been to us! Remember how fortunate we are to be free! Remember how thankful we are for the blessings of family and friends! Remember…
Perhaps, too, the answer to what ails us as a civilization can be found in the very gift of the Mass. The holy Eucharist, the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, is celebrated and received by using the very language of ritual and memory. Indeed, the word “remember” is used over and over again at Mass. And our Lord’s very words at the Last Supper remind us to remember.
Over the years, I have found that the kindest thing you can say to a person who is grieving the death of a loved one is: “I remember.” “Yes, I remember your spouse, your child, your parent, your friend.”
In a very real way, their memory makes them come alive again. I think this is what was behind the mystical experience of visiting my mother’s friendary. We simply remembered Morris and Margaret. And all of 40 years came back in an instant. We sat at a table, we broke bread and we remembered. And on that happy afternoon we did this in memory of them.
Fr. Girotti is vicar general and moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay.