1. You got our jokes.
And we got your jokes. That might not sound like much, but for people like us, people who go through life compelled to tell the kinds of jokes that will be gotten by maybe one or two people in the room, it’s everything. It was even more for you. You didn’t hold many people dear, but those who you did, you held as dear as anyone could, and for every one of those people you had a network of in-jokes, little references that only two or three or four people on Earth would ever understand. It’s as simple a recipe as anyone could ask for: If someone wasn’t worth an in-joke, someone wasn’t worth knowing.
2. You gave good gifts.
Not just the expected, check-off-a-box, “What do you want for Christmas?” type of gifts. Unexpected gifts. Gifts that we had no idea we wanted until they showed up in the mailbox out of the blue and we opened them up and said, “Huh, that’s actually perfect.” Gifts for no occasion other than “I saw this and it made me think of you,” and we could tell that you really meant it. Gifts that made us want to say we appreciated it but you really didn’t need to spend your money on sending us gifts, except we knew that you did need to send these gifts, that this was your purest expression of love and that a gift well received was a true source of joy for you. You looked us over, made your assessments and spotted tiny little holes in us the exact size and shape of those gifts and filled them in before we even knew they were there.
3. You made a lot of noise.
You could fill a room with words, layering them one on top of another like bricks, sitting up at your father’s kitchen table talking until all hours of the morning, ringing us up on the phone with a determination unheard of in the era of digital dialogue, interlacing your words with other people’s until they formed an edifice just sturdy enough to stave off the dread of silence. Silence was not your friend, and so you surrounded yourself in sound, nurturing a family unafraid to use their voices, to talk and shout and laugh and scream and speak their minds with little regard to phony constructs of putting on airs or keeping up appearances. Your galaxy was a boisterous, bubbling, thriving orbit of sound and sight and self-expression with you as its fiery nucleus.
4. You believed in family.
Perhaps above all other beliefs, you believed in family. If you could be at a family gathering, you would be at a family gathering, even if it meant braving all-night drives or snow-slicked roads or stomach flus or unsympathetic employers. Your kids were by god going to know their family and vice versa. Your approach to family was unorthodox in a way that might have mortified the philistines, but you never gave much of a thought to orthodoxy. Raucous and rocky as your style often was, no one who made the effort to look beneath the surface could deny that it was born of a love and passion for your children, your husband, your father and brother and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and in-laws and extended relations who molded you while you molded them right back. Just look at any picture of you with one of your children. In spite of all your surly stances and anti-establishment affectations, you’re almost always beaming with a wholesome pride that would knock the wind out of Norman Rockwell.
5. You loved your stuff.
You liked the permanence of objects, pieces of the past that you could hold in your hand or place on a shelf or bring out to show your guests and start a conversation about “remember the time when we.” And it was always we. These things, these little treasures were manifested with the power of shared experiences, magnetic bonds between you and the people who mattered most. You were a true believer in “something to remember you by.” Even if the memories were not all pleasant, and certainly many of them were not, they were necessary scraps and stitches of what made you who you were. Those were things to honor and hold near, priceless acquisitions to be displayed in the Museum of You. Perhaps that’s why you gave such good gifts. You understood the value of these little tokens as mile-markers along the highway of our lives. Each one stands as a reminder of the you we knew in a particular time and place, and also of what you saw in us at each juncture. Each one is a portrait of us. Something to remember you by, because remembering is all we can do.
Now that our conversations have shifted to the past tense, now that our landscape suddenly feels agonizingly quiet and colorless, now that we find ourselves desperate to remember, all we can do is to take another page from your book and think about the elegantly lettered thank-you notes that arrived promptly any time one of us sent you a gift. Now the time has come to offer our badly belated thanks.
Thank you for the gifts that helped us consider who we are.
Thank you for the noise that filled every room with life and energy.
Thank you for the honest observations that seldom flinched.
Thank you for the dedication to the ones you held dear.
Thank you for the insistence on keeping us close even when it was easier to stay apart.
Thank you for the beautiful people you helped bring into our lives.
Thank you for you.