This past weekend Ben and I journeyed to Indianapolis to celebrate the life of his grandmother, Irene. Irene died almost a year ago, so this was more of a family reunion than a funeral, but we still spent some time remembering what a remarkable woman she was. I was fortunate enough to have a relationship with her for a few years, and I believe that my memories of the type of woman she was will influence the type of woman I choose to be.
Irene was a woman who held herself and everyone else to a certain standard. She demonstrated many times over her love for others, her zest for life, and her convictions. She didn’t let any person or institution disrespect her and get away with it. She had a wonderful smile and laugh. She was witty, direct, and civilized, but the thing I will hold onto when thinking about the way she lived was how sharp she was. She was incredibly sharp and always aware of who she was and what was happening in the context of her life, and that resulted in all of those other attributes I listed. I strive to be as sharp as Irene. Sharpness that leads to wit and laughter. Sharpness that allows one to perceive and empathize. Sharpness that does not easily permit acquiescence, that sets those high standards and makes one formidable. Sharpness that encourages one to live her life fully.
I feel very lucky to recognize that I have friends (and family) who impact me like Irene. Irene wasn’t my grandmother and she wasn’t a mentor. She was a cherished friend, and I gained much from that friendship (and gave, too). I think the age roles that society creates for us, that discourage us from being or acting in certain ways, and really discourages friendships across generations, is largely bunk. Sure, being friends with people who are going through similar experiences as me is important and makes sense. I don’t mean to devalue those friendships. But I think we fall into a trap of not recognizing friendships that exist between ourselves and others of different ages, not seeking them out, trying to identify them as some other sort of relationship, and doubting that those bonds exist in the way we sometimes feel that they do. We create age-ghettos for ourselves. I want to say that those friendships do exist, that they’re just as meaningful and rich as friendships within an age bracket, and to hell with the doubts otherwise.
I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I created a little book with my memories and other stories and pictures of Irene? I would love to record those stories, and I could read it, reflect on it, and it would inform my state of mind and my actions.” I don’t share this thought to demean Irene’s life and reduce her to pages in a book. Quite the opposite. I have these thoughts because I am often painfully aware of how fallible my memory is, and how important these memories are to me. I’d want one of those books for so many important people in my life: valued professors, family elders, my younger cousins, my pregnant best friend, my neighbors who are the epitome of hospitality. I think that these books could form a whole library and together reflect what it is to be an amazing human at so many stages and places in life, contradictory and beautiful. I want all of those stories in books I’ve bound myself, so I always remember what Renn taught me – out on the dance floor – about what it means to have chutzpah when she was 6, even when I’m 86, but that’s impossible. The library has to exist in my head. I just have to remember to stop and reflect on all of those stories from time to time and try to hold onto what I can of those memories and lessons. I write down what I can (not in a book, but in whatever notebook or computer is on hand), knowing that it is so impossibly far from being complete, and hope that the rest of the stories are not forgotten – that we’re all sharp enough to remember. Thank you for the friendship, memories, and lessons, Irene.