By the Book: ‘Living Memories Project: Legacies that Last’

The slightly out-of-focus photo of a dandelion in its seedhead phase, dying but in the act of replenishing, nicely captures the theme of this readable, inspirational collection of short, personal memorials that the editors have assembled from 37 voices, several of whom are from Long Island. Titled The Living Memories Project: Legacies that Last (Little Miami Publishing Co.), the book owes its inception to the editors’ desire and need to deal with grief.

A few years ago, Meryl Ain and her brother Arthur M. Fischman lost their mother about a year after their father died, and Meryl’s husband Stewart Ain lost his mother while working on the book—that’s “when the project really hit home for me.” They know they’re hardly the first to put together such a volume, an act that proved cathartic, but they felt they had a special idea worth promoting—to integrate the “spirit and values” of those who died into the lives of those who remain, “not just once, but every day.”

The collection works. The stories all have an informal tone (some record recent loss, others go back years), and each story is told by a survivor who now “shares” it with the reader, thus giving the tributes a sense of intimacy, of confidences exchanged (each voice is preceded by a short bio, supplied by the editors). Though many stories cover familiar elegiac ground—describing stages of grief in the loss of a parent, grandparent, friend, lover, child—they do so in a cautious way, acknowledging that overcoming grief is not easy and in some cases may not succeed. But why not try. The essays are never preachy (though preachers—rabbis and pastors—provide back-jacket testimony), and while the “sharers” offer no how-to protocols, common themes emerge. Kudos to the editors who saw to it that the prose remained simple. What most of the pieces “share,” some overtly, is a commitment to keep the loved one alive by starting a project in his or her name—a foundation that does research on a disease or contributes to the local community or to worldwide needs. The project can be a small memorial scholarship at a school or an annual memorial dinner. For Eileen Belmont, legacy led to the making of memory quilts, using material or clothing belonging to the deceased, a career that made her feel part of the lives she recreated.

With collections, it’s always tempting to note the bookends. In this case they are Malachy McCourt’s “Death Is Not Fatal” and Linda Ruth Tosetti’s “Babe Ruth: The Name is Magic.” Malachy advises not feeling guilt about unresolved issues, and though he also says it’s okay to resent the deceased, he thinks Oscar Wilde probably got it right—“Forgive your enemies. It annoys them.” Harry Chapin’s daughter urges following creative pursuits, writing a song or doing “some other satisfying endeavor. It’s good for the soul.” In other words, mourn, then don’t mourn. Live. In the last essay, Tosetti’s (she was the “Babe’s babe,” Babe Ruth’s daughter, though he did not marry her mother), she points out that 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the Babe entering major league baseball, but what she really wants to celebrate is not so much his achievement on the diamond but his humanitarian work, especially on behalf of minorities. In other words, seek out something new and positive about those who have gone.

Some who suffered loss may have felt challenged to overcome more than others. After years of mourning the loss of his sister Betty at the age of 45, Nick Clooney (the father of George and brother to Rosemary) still feels pain (“Keeping Memories Fresh and Green”), but retains his sense of humor. Robert Meeropol, the son Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed on the charge of conspiracy to commit espionage, started a victims’ fund for children of “targeted prisoners.” What emerges from all the stories is that legacy is what we make of it, what we do, and that memorials are for us more than about the dead. As Dr. Yeou-Cheng M. Ma MD, the sister of famous cellist Yo Yo Ma, puts it in “The Language of Music,” her father once showed her a geranium plant and said, “It grows every day. If you do not grow and improve every day, you are less than a plant.”

Readers are invited to contribute to the website thelivingmemoriesproject.com

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