How to remember that we must die on Ash Wednesday.
Whenever anyone entered my childhood home in upstate New York, they would see two framed black-and-white photographs on our dining room table. If they were perceptive, they would sense that ours was a home connected to eternity, in irrevocable and irreparable ways. The photographs were of my 37-year old mother, Hanna, and 10-year-old sister, Esther.
My mother died from a massive brain aneurysm when I was one year old, just seven days after giving birth to her eighth child. Five years to the day after Mom’s death, my sister Esther died of osteosarcoma.
After the loss of his soulmate, my bereaved father began a tradition of setting a place for my mother at every family meal. This would continue even after Dad remarried, and for as long as we kids lived at home. We always placed Mom’s portrait—she’s holding a rose and smiling—above the plate. After my sister’s death, her picture joined Mom’s. We set that place for them regardless of how many guests we’d invited; and if someone happened to join us spontaneously, we’d welcome them to “use Mom and Esther’s place.”
In this way, and without realizing it, I was raised with a daily practice of memento mori. Latin for “remember that you must die,” memento mori is a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. Though as a child I could not have articulated it, I knew intuitively that by enshrining our mother’s and sister’s memory, we were acknowledging both the finality of their absence and the thinness of the veil keeping us apart. Some of my closest friends would later tell me it gave them pause every time they entered our house: two dearly loved family members were not there in body, …