Last week one of my oldest cousins died. The oldest? Well, the oldest one still with us. Patricia was 86, the youngest child in this photograph from about 1937. My mother is the little girl in the middle, back row. My aunt Darlene is in the front row. I called Darlene this evening and we talked about my cousin — who was more like one of Darlene’s sisters. “She always called my mother, ‘Mother,’ and her mother, ‘Mama.’ She did that right up until the end.”

The conversation made me think about how the older people in our lives are repositories of history, of story, and it made me think about how much of that history dies, untapped.

Patricia had a son one year older than I, and another son, one year younger. Her mother, Violet, was like a second mother to my mother. I don’t think we saw a lot of Patricia’s family when I was young, though I have vivid memories of their collie, Shep.

I knew the “Mother/Mama” story. I didn’t know that my cousin’s favorite food was pierogis. My aunt Darlene is making a batch of them to take to the dinner after the graveside service. “She won’t get to eat any, but it’s the last time I can make them for her, so I’m doing it.” I remember my aunt Violet’s cabbage rolls (they are one of my specialities). But if I ever had pierogis, I don’t remember. So, I told my aunt I’d make them, too. She told me how she makes them — in great detail —  and then said, “You can find a recipe on-line.”


I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand, but they turned out pretty yummy anyway 🙂

I thought of that poem by Grace Paley, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative,” about making a pie instead of writing a poem.

I also thought of this short poem, though it isn’t especially appropriate to the occasion:

On the Death of Friends in Childhood

We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.

Donald Justice (1925-2004)



5 replies
  1. Rita
    Rita says:

    I never quite know what to say in response to this kind of loss, which is becoming more and more common among those I know. So many of my own older family gone, and so many childhood friends losing their parents. “I’m sorry for your loss” feels so inadequate, and yet, I am truly sorry for your loss. It’s not just the loss of a person, but as you note, of a history. Hers, and your own. I’m glad I didn’t understand that a generation ago; the weight of it would have been too heavy for mid-30s me. At the same time, seeing how transitory it all is has begun to be a kind of comfort and release. Frees me up to live more fully and honestly than I ever have.

    • Bethany
      Bethany says:

      Rita, What a beautiful comment! It reflects back to me what I’ve been trying to express, and it includes a challenge — to live more fully and honestly. I think I’ve shared here (probably years ago) that my mother was #11 of 15 children. I have about 300 cousins! These last few years have been steadily picking off our elders, emptying the room, it sometimes feels, of my childhood. As you said, I know that everyone experiences these losses as we age, but it drops me through a sort of trapdoor (the way a good book does) into unexpected layers of emotion and memory. Thank you for making me circle back and think more about this.

  2. Janet B.
    Janet B. says:

    Strangely enough, I’ve been thinking a lot about pierogis. We used to have them back in Russian House at the UW, and I loved, loved, loved them. They weren’t crusty but simply little white things fished out of boiling water. Maybe baked a bit but still white?

    Recently I switched to “farmer’s cheese” because it is not salted, and it really is delicious, and I recognized the taste right away as what those Russian pierogis were stuffed with — and which the recipe I’d found from Olga (below) confirms! Just another somewhat quirky association with your post. I wonder if you’ll find out what kinds she liked. I’ve seen them frozen in bags somewhere . . . And you can put ground meat-and-onions in and dip them in sour cream. Sooo good.



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