“Please come join in celebrating Sylvia’s 90th birthday,” read the invitation.
Of course we would be delighted to attend. Sylvia was one of my mother-in-law’s oldest friends and, like her, a completely engaging force of nature. In 1972, she ran for Congress as an unreconstructed McGovern liberal in what was then decidedly Republican New Hampshire. She relished knowing that she drove Meldrim Thomson, the state’s ultraconservative governor of that era, absolutely crazy.
Sylvia now lives outside Boston, and the celebration with family and friends made for a beautiful evening at a Cambridge restaurant. But it was hard for my wife and me not to feel a little melancholy amid the mirth. My mother-in-law died nine years ago. Were she still alive, she surely would have been there. Because she wasn’t, it somehow became all the more important that we go.
Many people deal with loss by holding on to something significant that belonged to the departed. As we baby boomers experience the loss of our parents, whether it’s a conscious part of the grieving process or not, we seem to hold on to the friends who survive them. Staying connected with them keeps the flame of our parents’ lives going a little longer, providing a bridge from a parent’s constant presence in our lives to the reality of their sudden absence, jarring no matter their age when it happens.
After my mother died four years ago, it felt even more important than usual for me to reach out to invite Hans to our Passover Seders. He and my mother became close friends in the late 1930s, when they both arrived with their families in Guatemala, part of a tightknit community of Jewish refugees there who made it out of Germany just in time.
Now in his early 90s, Hans is a fascinating, eccentric, and still vibrant Renaissance man, an accomplished artist, cultural anthropologist, and art collector. He always arrives bejeweled in rings on multiple fingers, eager to talk about a new project, a recent trip to China or Africa, or the issues of the day.
He has assembled an incredible collection of very old, richly illustrated Passover Haggadahs from various countries, and one recent year he brought them to show us. Their telling through various cultures of the story of the Exodus was fascinating. But I am far more interested in hearing stories of his and my mother’s own difficult wanderings and flight to freedom as events in Germany were fast closing in on them.
At Sylvia’s party, there was the requisite slide show of old photographs documenting a life well lived. They were, of course, mostly of Sylvia and her family through the years, her late husband Phil, their children, and grandchildren. My wife and I were on the lookout when the pictures extended to her wider circle, as my mother-in-law made several appearances. When she did, my wife and I exchanged smiles, and I felt the now familiar mix of warm memory and wistful absence that such images evoke.
Something about wanting to maintain these ties can feel a little unseemly. I have come to realize, though, that there’s nothing wrong with it. What’s more, the unease about those feelings runs both ways.
As the party wound down, we went to say goodbye to Sylvia. She thanked us and told us how much she enjoyed seeing us, but it became clear her delight was about more than just our presence.
“It’s great to be with the children of the people I loved. It’s the next best thing,” she said before catching herself. “Oh, wait, that didn’t come out right. I didn’t mean it like that.”
No, it’s perfectly OK, we said. We knew what she meant.
Michael Jonas is executive editor of CommonWealth magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.TELL YOUR STORY. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.