How do I want to be remembered?

Paper Art: Elsa Mora

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How Do I Want to Be Remembered?
When her mother, Katie Lynch, née Eames, died in New York City in the late winter of 1919, my mother was only 3 months old. Her two older sisters continued to live with their widowed father, but since my mother was still an infant, she was taken in by an aunt. Nearly 40 years later, that aunt returned to her native Ireland for a visit. That's when the people in her village told the story they had heard about her younger sister's fate: Katie Eames, they said, went to America and danced herself to death.

Among those in the village who had known Katie Eames as a girl, there was a sense of inevitability about the rumor. Apparently, Katie Eames was a bit of a partyer before she left for America at 19. A dancer. A late nighter. My mother knew already that Katie had been a pretty young woman, with a round Irish face and a large hat—there was one photo—and now she knew that as a girl her mother had laid the foundation for the story that served as her epitaph.

They had it wrong, of course. Wrong because the girl they remembered was not the woman Katie had become in America: devoted wife, doting mother, one of the city's hardworking poor. The truth of the matter was that Katie Eames, perhaps weakened by childbirth, caught the flu in the winter of 1919 and died at age 31.

The lesson, I suppose, is that none of us have much control over how we will be remembered. Every life is an amalgam, and it is impossible to know what moments, what foibles, what charms will come to define us once we're gone. All we can do is live our lives fully, be authentically ourselves and trust that the right things about us, the best and most fitting things, will echo in the memories of us that endure.

I have in my possession another photograph, of my own mother as a teenager. In it, she is stretched out on a couch, her shoes thrown off, her head thrown back, a white camellia, like a burst of starlight, in her dark hair. Someone has written on the back: "Mildred, dancing till dawn."

And I have in my memory all those nights when I, as a teenager, came rolling home at 3 or 4 A.M., after too much dancing and too much drinking and altogether too much fun, and saw—just over my stern and furious father's shoulder—my mother wink. Or heard her whispered question as I crawled into bed: "Did you have a good time?"

Something of the rumor and the lie, it seems, finds proof in the blood.

We are at the mercy of time, and for all the ways we are remembered, a sea of things will be lost. But how much is contained in what lingers! My grandmother's Irish epitaph finesses tragedy and dispenses with grief and does a lovely two-step over the hard facts of a short life. What remains is that Katie once was a girl who laughed, and danced, and had some fun. And it's the best, truest thing I know about her.

Alice McDermott, author, most recently, of the novel Someone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).