Cultivate memories for future sustenance

October 17, 2001|By Bill Tammeus

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- What mattered, in the end, was that my family had taken enough time over the years to create the healing memories we shared now in our need and pain.

Decade by decade, we had spent important, formative, loving time together.

We had shared corners of summers and vacations and holidays.

We had gathered for birthdays, anniversaries and graduations, for weddings, funerals and family reunions.

We had carefully -- and, well, sometimes haphazardly, too -- crafted the memories that we shared on this tearful night at the memorial service for my nephew, Karleton Fyfe, who was a passenger on the first airplane to hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

All over the country, in fact, thousands of families have been gathering at similar services to remember the irreplaceable lives lost to terrorism's warring madness.

And the best, most helpful of these services, I'm betting, have occurred where families had built a tradition of closeness and an appreciation for ceremony.

This is one more vital lesson we must learn from the pain the terrorists inflicted on all of us. The time we spend together as families, it turns out, is not only good in itself, but it's good because it is creating deep reservoirs of memories that can help us survive whatever pain we later encounter.

At the memorial service for Karleton, for instance, my sister and brother-in-law (Karleton's parents) and I all spoke in our eulogies of different wonderful times we had spent together as family with Karleton. There were detailed stories that would have been impossible had we not committed the time required for those stories to develop in the first place.

Finding time for this in our family has not been easy.

My three sisters and I are scattered literally from coast to coast. And now our grown children are beginning to spread out, too.

But over the years we have done our best to be part of one another's lives.

Let me drop back a few months and give you an example of what I mean about creating memories that can heal.

In late June, Karleton's younger sister Erin was married in Chicago. So all of us who could make it -- my three sisters and most of our children -- gathered on the city's north side to spend several days together.

It was a beautiful time -- and it was the last time I saw Karleton.

Within the marriage ceremony, Erin and her groom, Carl, introduced many of us to an ancient tradition with roots in Carl's Chinese heritage. It is called the tea ceremony, and it's a way for the couple to show gratitude to their parents for their many blessings.

By saying to each set of parents that they are loved and respected, it honors family through a formal ritual that points to deep meaning.

Erin served tea to Carl's parents, Mei-Chi and Richard, and Carl served it to Erin's parents, Barbara and Jim. The tea was sweetened with lotus seeds and dates because in ancient times it was believed this would help the newlyweds produce children soon.

All of this was fresh in my mind as we gathered here in North Carolina to honor and remember Karleton's 31 years of life.

I was glad that Carl and Erin -- less than three months before Karleton's death -- had reminded us again how important it is to come together as family, to respect one another and create sweet memories.

If, as is true, memory is a mixture of both cure and curse, it's also true that memory cannot cure anything if it's empty of good times.

What was so clear to me as we gathered to say farewell to Karleton was that you don't have access to the healing power of memories if you haven't invested the time required to cultivate them.

So it would be wise to commit ourselves anew to setting aside what is, finally, unimportant so that we have time to devote to building the sort of reminiscences that are absolutely essential when trying to recover from the kind of horrific loss my family has suffered.

Bill Tammeus is an editorial page columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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