Soaring on the wings of memories

Why do people save things" For many of us, the reasons are more sentimental than practical. We’re not like squirrels hoarding nuts before winter weather sets in. We have needs that are spiritual as well as physical.

In recent years, I’ve developed a peculiar habit of saving voices. It came to light last week, when I had to replace my answering machine at work. My machine had become a phonic scrapbook, preserving milestones in the life of the Enterprise staff.
There was Nicole Fay Barr, as a new reporter four years ago, excitedly telling me that she and her husband had found the house of their dreams. "We’re doing it; we’re going to buy the house," she exclaimed. This week, she brought her first baby home to that house.

Another reporter, Jo E. Prout, announced the birth of her second child, Clara Esperanza, and her weight — seven pounds, three ounces. Clara will be three years old on April 18 and weighs 24 pounds now.
Paige Spawn told me about her true love’s proposal; she’s now married and living in what she calls her "happily ever after."

The practice began when my good friend, Bryce Butler, a writer at the paper, was battling cancer. He left a message on my answering machine one spring day, telling me he had just seen a bluebird.

It wasn’t the bluebird of happiness, Bryce said; it was his brother — the bluebird of pretty successfully faking it. His words were followed with his hearty laugh. I loved the message, so I saved it.

Then, months later, after Bryce had died, I saved another message, from Marilyn Mowry, the woman who loved him and lived with him, and cared for him till the day he died.

Marilyn was planning Bryce’s funeral. There would be no body; Bryce had donated it to a medical school. She asked if I could bring in the newsroom door where Bryce had posted office witticisms during his years at The Enterprise; that door embodied him, Marilyn said. We took the door off of its hinges and brought it to the church in Schenectady for Bryce’s funeral. Reading the messages on the door made people laugh and cry.

Marilyn died last year and I couldn’t bear to part with her voice and its calm reassuring tones any more than I could bear to part with Bryce’s laugh. So I saved them and added others.

I thought of this as I read yet another article on how mourning customs have ebbed or ended in our culture. It’s true we no longer make flowered wreaths out of dead people’s hair, or save their tears in vials to wear around our necks as those in the Victorian era did. Most of us no longer drape our front doors in black when someone who lived inside has died. Few widows wear black clothes for months or refuse social engagements for as long. Few families spend every Sunday on long visits to the cemetery.

But we’ve found other ways to mourn and remember. Some of our ways of mourning are individual and spontaneous; others are planned and involve large groups of people.

We received a letter last month from a reader who appreciated a roadside monument that had sprung up at the site of a fatal car crash. We’ve pictured several such spontaneous monuments on our pages in recent years; the treasures people leave at such places tell volumes.

We’ve also written about campaigns that have raised funds to buy monuments — the Angel of Hope that spreads her wings now at the center of Altamont honors those who died young.

In recent years, too, we’ve covered participatory events to celebrate the life of someone who has died. A run was started in memory of Brenda Deer, a young mother and beloved teaching assistant at Guilderland Elementary School, who was struck by a drunk driver as she jogged near her home.

This month, we received notice of another race being launched by the family and friends of Stacy Zounes. The Altamont native was killed in a car accident on Dec. 22, 2004 when she was 33 years old.
"A beloved mom, teacher, and gifted aerobic teacher, Stacy dedicated her time to her children and her love for fitness," says a flyer put out by race organizers. "Our wish is to keep Stacy’s love alive. On April 29, 2006, we will be hosting the Stacy Zounes Family Fun Run at DiCaprio Park in Guilderland...." Proceeds will go to a scholarship for a graduate from Stacy’s alma mater, Guilderland High School.
We can remember the words Stacy’s husband, George Zounes, spoke to us after she died: She was beautiful on the outside and had "an amazing heart" on the inside, he said. "She’d make you feel warm and comforted...She was a vibrant and enthusiastic person.,"

We can imagine people coming out on race day — vibrant and enthusiastic — and feeling comfort themselves in being together. What a wonderful way to celebrate Stacy Zounes’s life.

We were also moved this month by another creative and uplifting way of dealing with death. Emily Rawitsch has taken the pain she felt at her mother’s death a year ago and turned it into something beautiful that will heal others as well. She has, quite literally, created a work of art.
Women — many of them strangers — have given her bras in honor or memory of someone affected by cancer. In response to Emily’s e-mailed request, hundreds of bras have arrived at her home from all across the country. She has transformed each bra into a bird that will become part of her installation, "Transcend."
"I sew to heal," she wrote in her artist’s statement. "I sew to help others heal. This process is meditative for me...To go beyond the pain and celebrate life, you have to transcend."
"This project is using everything I’ve learned in my 22 years of life," Emily told us. On April 7, the day the exhibit opens, at Pi Naturals, Inc. in Troy, she has organized a festival that will raise awareness about cancer and celebrate life.

Emily Rawitsch’s dream is to take her birds on the road, much the way the AIDS quilt travels from city to city, raising awareness, offering healing and hope.

We are all made richer by this new way of mourning. It gives us something good to do with our grief. Like Emily’s birds, we are set free.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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