For Remembrance

Rosemerry is for remembrance, I’ve heard.

Through the Miracle of the Internet, I’ve already reviewed the first of two sections of today’s weekly Gunnison paper. Omar, sometime employee at Pat’s, got his picture on the front page participating in a school project; we had an in-town shooting; lots and lots of school contretemps over masks and non-existent critical race theory . . . and on page 3 there is an obituary for Marilyn Johnson, age 91.

In that same space early this year the paper ran an obituary for Marilyn’s husband Ralph, a professor of English at Western Then State and a good friend of my dad’s. The couple left Gunnison five years ago to be closer to at least one of their four children, and all four were with their mother when she died.

Mrs. Johnson was an elementary teacher for most of her career here in Gunnison, and she always struck me as calm and unruffled. Her voice was like water running clear and smooth over the rocks. I’m sad to learn of her passing, but what really struck me as I read her obituary was the thoroughness her family provided of her life, from childhood forward.

Not that it was drawn out nor overly long; it was a nice obituary that neatly encapsulated much of who Marilyn Johnson was. I used to write obituaries for the paper, and sometimes all the information I had to go on was what was provided to me by Miller Funeral Home. Now I don’t think anyone from the staff writes the obits; if you want to put in a notice about someone, I believe you supply the already-written information and then pay to have it published as news content.

I don’t know that for sure, fortunately, because I’ve not had to report on the demise of a loved one in several years. Which is a very good thing. But reading Mrs. Johnson’s comprehensive obituary made me realize that I would not be able to be so thorough in providing a life report for my parents.

I was at the memorial for Pat Julio, and his daughter Vikki gave a very nice eulogy, but it started with her admission that no one knew much about her father’s early years. It sounded like he didn’t talk much about them, and that he was an orphan with only an older brother (who was killed in World War II) for family. I knew Mr. Julio for most of my life, and there are many fine things I can say and am happy to remember about him, but sometimes I ache for this little lost boy I never even heard of until after the good man he became had passed on. This little boy he never let anyone know.

When I was a high school senior, before I became a reporter and interviewed lots of people I didn’t know, my English teacher assigned the class to interview and write a paper on a senior citizen of Gunnison. It was a daunting assignment back then, so daunting that I didn’t do it exactly as the teacher envisioned. Instead of calling someone I didn’t know, I defaulted to my friend Jeff’s dad Corky, perhaps a decade older than my own dad but certainly not a senior citizen.

The teacher reluctantly allowed me to go ahead with the interview, and I’m still glad she did, because while you think you kind of at least know your friends’ parents, and this one lived just two doors down, I would never have otherwise sat down one-on-one with Mr. Ruffe. I would never have known he’d served as a medic in Korea, would never have otherwise remembered the emotion behind the motion as he gently pushed a pencil through a piece of paper and softly told me that was what a bullet sounded like.

My friend Grant Houston, who is the Lake City Silver World newspaper, not quite since its inception in the 1880s but pretty darn close, was named long ago as a living historical resource by the State of Colorado. He had a suggestion for me once that was probably the best suggestion I never acted on, to my deep regret today.

I was headed to a Thanksgiving at my parents’ that was going to be attended by two of my grandmothers, my mom’s mom and John’s mom. These were two daughters of Nebraska, and when Grant learned they were both going to be there, he suggested I ask them to talk about their lives and put in on tape. (That’s how long ago this was.)

So I did, almost. I took my tape recorder and some tapes, and even though these were women I knew, could talk to, and valued with all my heart, I got too shy and never found a time during that long weekend to ask them to talk about their early years and if it would be okay to record that. Even if I hadn’t recorded it, I should have asked.

I feel, now, they would have been flattered that I’d asked, and I also feel like I wouldn’t have had to ask more than one question to generate a lengthy and packed conversation between the two of them. But I never asked.

Now I think back to the time I asked my mom’s mom for information about what life was like when she was growing up as research for some fiction I was writing, and she mailed me five or seven pages of memories, like they’d flowed right out of her onto the page. I hope I still have this valuable artifact somewhere in my stacks and stacks of papers, but the one thing I’ll never have — because I was too embarrassed and shy to ask — is the gift of a conversation that would have enriched my life greatly.

And now, as I approach senior status myself, I would wonder from this perspective if I would have anything of interest to offer a young student doing an assignment they didn’t want to do but that maybe would stick with them the rest of their life.

I’d like to think the answer is yes, for me as well as everyone else. This is not about imparting wisdom or telling people what to do or how to do it; this is passing along the story of family and friends. This is about learning who and where we have come from, be it our blood relatives, our chosen relatives, our friends, our neighbors.

As we approach the season of family gatherings, let us remember the example of Marilyn Johnson and whichever member of her family thought to not only ask but listen, and let us provide one another with the gift of story. Family and friend story. Separated by age and distance from Mrs. Johnson, I now feel I have a structure for what made her such a gentle and thoughtful person, and that is something to treasure.

When you next find yourself at a family or friend table, ask: ask someone older than you to talk about their life. And if you are the one asked, do not demur: this is the most personal and precious of gifts you can offer, to allow others to carry your story on.

Here’s a Rosemerry who remembers and tells stories through poem.

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