Meryl’s mother was a big proponent of always having a plan, so she decided to make this her project – discovering how to go beyond that wrenching, painful heartache to a happy and productive life.
She convinced her brother, Arthur Fischman, and husband, Stewart Ain, to join her in exploring this phenomenon in a book project. Thus, The Living Memories Project was conceived.
Thanks for this interview, Meryl. Keeping memories of loved ones alive after they’re gone is such a great thing, and I would love for you to explain to us how we can go about doing that? Can you give us an example?
There are so many ways — big and small — that we can keep alive the memories of our loved ones. I just had the pleasure of presenting two scholarships in my father’s memory at the Brentwood High School (NY) Scholarship Awards Assembly last week. My dad was a beloved principal and teacher in the district for 25 years.
The Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship was inspired by interviews we did for The Living Memories Project. Both Nick Clooney and Yeou-Cheng Ma –- two of our interviewees — advised that a scholarship was a meaningful way to remember a loved one.
I took their advice a few years ago and have been offering these scholarships since. It has been very rewarding. I joined with more than 100 others, many of whom were also honoring the memories of their loved ones by presenting scholarships.
It gives me a chance to tell the audience about my dad and to meet people who knew him. At the same time, I was able to help two deserving seniors. I get more out of it than you could ever imagine because it is very healing and comforting to be speaking in a place that was so special and meaningful for him.
I have heard this book will literally change your life. How has it changed yours?
Before I embarked on researching and writing this book, I was engulfed with grief; grief colored everything I did. I was constantly thinking of what I no longer had, and I felt rather sorry for myself.
The book gave me a different perspective on life and death; it showed me that they were not separate, but a continuum. Those who go before us do not want us to spend the rest of our lives grieving, but rather to enjoy our lives and to make their memories a blessing. I learned so many ways that people find comfort, purpose, and joy in carrying on the memories, values, and passions of their loved ones.
From the Aldermans, who created an amazing foundation in memory of their son who was killed on 9/11, to a woman who said her mother “is in her heart and her head” when she prepares her recipes. We feature 32 stories in the book, and they are all unique and heartfelt. Now instead of focusing on what I do not have, I have learned to appreciate what I do have. And I make a point of giving back as much as I can and focusing on counting my blessings.
In a recent interview, you said, “Loved ones die only if you let them.” To some people, a constant reminder that their loved one has died makes them have a hard time with healing. They want to move on, and the constant reminders don’t seem to help. In doing research for your book, did you happen to find anyone who felt like that?
Although each of those we interviewed wanted to celebrate the memories of their loved ones, I know there are people who believe that the way to move on is not to mention those who are deceased. I know that many people are uncomfortable with the topic of death and don’t want to discuss it. I disagree. I don’t think it is healing to act as if the person never existed. Our book was written to help readers move beyond the pain and the sadness and how the person died.
It is to help them remember the loving and joyful memories of how a person lived. It is to help readers move on from wallowing in depression and despair and help them develop projects that will help others in the name of their loved ones. It helps them move from negativity to creativity.
What was one of your most memorable moments putting this book together?
The most significant part of putting the book together was interviewing the people. Whether they were famous or not, each had an inspiring story to tell.
It was awesome to learn from Nick Clooney that he believes that the activism of his son, actor George Clooney, in Darfur was a result of Nick’s grandfather’s legacy of social responsibility. It was special to find out that Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the daughter of President Lyndon Johnson, gave her mother’s friends Lady Bird’s scarves to remember her. Malachy McCourt’s statement that “death is not fatal” really made me think.
He went on to explain that he keeps alive the memory of his brother Frank, the author of “Angela’s Ashes,” through the Irish tradition of song and story. Each story taught me, healed me, and gave me the strength and courage to find comfort and healing.
In homage to your mom, can you tell us a little about her?
My mother was the most unselfish, generous, and kind person I have ever known. A World War II veteran, she enlisted shortly after she graduated from New York University. She was a wonderful mother and mother-in-law, and an awesome grandmother.
She was my best friend, my sounding board, and my confidante. She was always thinking of others and never of herself. She was very upbeat and optimistic, and whenever I said I was sad, bored, or depressed, she would say: “Get yourself a project.”
That’s why the book is called The Living Memories Project. I’m also proud to say that there is a poem on page 162 that I wrote about what makes my mother special. I wrote it and read it to her as she was dying. A couple of weeks later, I read it at her funeral. The last line is: “The sun is forever/And so is a mother’s love.”
What should we as adults of a certain age tell our children and grandchildren to help them prepare for the inevitable?
I’m not sure we need to sit down and have a chat about it. We can be role models for appreciating life, counting our blessings, and modeling and talking about the values that are most important to us and that we hope to pass on to the next generations.
We can show how we honor the memories of those who are no longer here by sharing anecdotes, their advice and sayings, and showing photos and videos. We can emulate charitable behavior by donating to causes in memory of our loved ones.