2011 has not been a good year.
Three weeks ago, my mother-in-law died. My wife was devastated at the loss of her mother. Though I tried my best to comfort her, I felt pretty inadequate to the task.
Yesterday, my mom's husband died suddenly. (They married after I was already an adult and was on my own, so "stepdad" doesn't seem the right word somehow.) My mom was devastated at the loss and again I felt quite ineffective in my attempts to make her feel at least a bit better.
Socially and emotionally awkward as I am, I'm not good with all the raw emotional stuff: the crying, the hurting, the slow eventual healing. I have a difficult time embracing the fact that these are part of the human condition and must slowly play themselves out. It is not a "problem" that I can somehow "fix". Despite my best intentions, I cannot somehow "save the day" and make everything better for the people I love.
As an atheist, I don't really grieve for those who have died. As far as I can determine, their suffering is over and they no longer exist except in the memories of those who knew them. It's the people left behind for whom I'm sad.
So since I'm not much good at the weepy aspects of the entire mourning thing, I suppose I could try to do something I feel more confident at: writing about the people who have recently died.
My mother-in-law, Lillian Caputo, was born in northern Ontario over 80 years ago. She spoke only French until the age of 16. She grew up impoverished and remained that way until moving to Montreal as a teen to find work and a better life. She married and the family moved to the United States where her husband's mechanical skills were in demand. They lived the typical idyllic 1960's suburban lifestyle. All was well until her husband died of cancer mere months shy of being able to collect a generous General Motors pension. Suddenly faced with having to raise her youngest daughter (eventually to become my wife) on Social Security, she used all her resources to make sure they would be okay. She was smart with her money and she took good care of my wife-to-be through her teen years until I snatched her away. Lillian not only took good care of her daughter, she also felt sorry for me, often feeding me ample meals during my broke student years so I wouldn't have to survive merely on macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles.
She was also extremely handy with tools and had an artistic side which I wish she would have explored. When we bought our house years ago, she was the one who helped my wife paint the place while I was at work. I remember once when she bought a folk-art painting and wire piece. Her thrifty nature started bugging her and she decided she could make one just like it for much less. And she did. Perfectly. Her recreation of the piece was so spot-on it was indistinguishable from the original. So she returned it, got her money back and kept her identical copy.
Lillian was generous with her time and money. A gift from her made a huge dent in the down payment on our house. The best gift she left, however, was her daughter. Lillian made sure that her daughter Leanne grew up to be a healthy and happy and confident young woman who became a loving wife and attentive mother. And in that sense, though Lillian is now gone, her legacy remains.
My mom's husband, Chuck Franklin, was 60-years-old. I don't know too much about his early life because I never bothered to ask. I know he served in the military in Germany for a few years and then worked various jobs from furniture sales to long-distance driver. He ate, smoked and drank a lot. He had some failed marriages. Then he met my mom. To say that their pairing was unlikely is an understatement to anyone who knew them. But somehow they meshed. Chuck got his life together, stopped smoking and drinking and tried his best to watch his diet. After awhile my mom and Chuck were married. Though Chuck was over a decade younger than my mom, he seemed to have a premonition that he would die first. He accepted that in a matter-of-fact manner, saying that his marriage had added 15 years to his life regardless.
Anyone who knew Chuck would be struck by his sense of humor, his genuine warmth and kindness once you got to know him and - most of all - his uncanny culinary abilities. Chuck was perhaps the best cook I have ever known in all my life. I would look forward to each Thanksgiving for some of his delicious stuffing, mashed potatoes (he always made a huge quantity knowing I loved them) and amazing chocolate pies. Thanksgiving will never be the same from now on. I remember one time I was at my mom's for no real reason. I was probably just dropping something off or just stopping by to say hello or something. Out of the blue Chuck asked if I'd like some pan-seared steak. Not being one to turn down such an offer, I readily accepted. The steak was delicious, of course, but more surprising was the side dish: mushrooms. Normally, I view those fungi as the tasteless gray mass one usually tolerates on pizzas. I didn't really want to eat them, but I figured since Chuck went through all that trouble I should at least be polite and choke them down. But as I took that first bite: a revelation! THESE mushrooms were not only tolerable, they were delicious! In fact to this day that serving of mushrooms was among the best things I've eaten in my life. No mushrooms before had ever come close... and I suppose none ever shall again.
I have many other nice memories of Chuck - his attempt to show the finer points of trout fishing to my outdoors-challenged son - the time he took us to the Soo to see the locks and the museum ship there. But damned if those mushrooms don't keep popping back into my memory. I suppose there's a lesson in there somewhere. What for Chuck may have been a simple act of kindness, a mere cooking of a steak, something that he might have forgotten about even doing shortly thereafter, became an event that helped define who he was and became one of the fondest memories of him after his death.
So I suppose if you ever feel like doing something nice for someone - even something small - please do it. It may be what you're remembered for after you're gone.
And there I must end things. I have to go to the Post Office to pick up my mother-in-law's ashes.
As I said: 2011 has not been a good year.