As I drove away in the dusky light, I kept seeing the tailored rows of graves, those tiny repositories of stories that are hardly remembered, all those sad and broken boys resting in the velvet lawn of St. Mihiel, forever. Almost one hundred years of resting there, enough time to be forgotten, the lives that continued after theirs ended having now filled up the space that opened up when they died, so their absence now has been lacquered over, smoothed out, almost invisible.
What lasts? What lingers? What is snagged by the brambles of time, and what slips through and disappears? What leaves only a little dent in the world, the soft sunken green grave, the scribble on a scrap of paper, the memory that is bleached by time and then vanishes bit by bit each day?
Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all that we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten? I can't bear thinking that existence is so insubstantial, a stone thrown in a pond that leaves no ripple. Maybe all that we do in life is just a race against this idea of disappearing. Having children, making money, doing good, being in love, building something, discovering something, inventing something, learning something, collecting something, knowing something: these are the pursuits that make us feel like our lives aren't flimsy, that they build up into stories that are about something achieved, grown, found, built, loved, or even lost.
I appreciated Orlean's musings on this topic of what lingers, what lasts, and the substance of life. Her thoughts ask questions some of us answer, to some extent, by searching for our ancestors, by recording our family history, by writing our own memories, by keeping journals. Many of us wish that so much more had been snagged by the brambles of time. We’d have an easier go of discovering and making sense of the lives of those who came before us. For me, family history is about remembering those who have gone before, about noticing the ripples that circle from their lives to mine.
No, our lives are not flimsy or insubstantial. I believe the substance of our lives is this: the things we do and experience will affect us and others with whom we come in contact. Our experiences, along with the things we learn, become part of who we are – in fact, shape who we are – and will go with us through eternity. For me, life is not a race against disappearing. If it's a race at all, it's a race about becoming better than I was yesterday, about doing something positive and worthwhile whether anyone else remembers or not (though it is pleasant to be remembered). One day in the near or distant future my body, too, will rest under a velvet lawn and though my mortal life will have ended, the substance of my life will continue in another sphere.