On a family vacation, lessons about living and dying.
Our family decided this summer to spend time in the way that many Winter Parkers do when facing Florida’s baking temperatures and
steamy downpours. We left town.
Leaving the Sunshine State, I seesawed among Florida roadsters darting up I-95; jogged left through the South Carolina foothills and finally climbed upwards to pristine Watauga Lake, cradled by brisk eastern peaks that soar a good half mile above the Florida semi-tropics.
The high country does have telephones and Internet, which can intrude on the quiet serenity. Most days I moiled on a favorite deck chair overlooking diamond-studded waters and verdant forests. But the swimming and kayaking, laughs and camaraderie with friends and family, are our fondest vacation memories.
Mom arrived lakeside on July 4 and helped us entertain a troop of visitors through Labor Day. At 84, she is a beloved matriarch. Her children, nephews, nieces and grandchildren bask in her friendship.
Last summer, she settled into a nice routine. After claiming quiet time every day to collect her thoughts and broaden her knowledge, she turned easily to her duties as second mistress of the house, listening to and looking out for guests, ready to come to the their rescue at any point where they might feel awkward.
But, despite the gaiety, Mom contributed to my most vexing realization of the summer — a growing sense that time with her won’t last forever. Her health is fine enough. I noticed, however, a change in her outlook, which began with offhand comments and her refusal to commit to future plans.
“I don’t have time for that now.”
“I need to stay focused on a few remaining things that I want to accomplish.”
I expressed my unease at these veiled references to her death. My own mortality seldom registered in my thoughts and Mom’s comments made me uncomfortable. She wished that she could do something to ease my angst, but knew that she could not. This was my problem.
There is something about denying death that gives you the feeling that you have always existed, and always will. It is, however, a foolish illusion, says philosopher Charles D. Hayes. Temporal life is meaningful because it is short and because it cannot be repeated.
When you start to realize that you are not going to be here forever, your legacy becomes more important.
In his autobiographical story A Confession, Leo Tolstoy wonders: “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” He would spend his later years exploring this question in his novels.
To Mom, indestructible meaning is found in her family. When she was a child, her father lost everything in the Great Depression. While his partner jumped to his death off the roof of their bankrupt Chicago hotel, Grandpa started over in his small Illinois hometown as a crop insurance agent. Family, not material things, sustained him.
Mom believes that immortality lies in one’s children. Her older sister Jane, dying of bone cancer, moved into Mom’s home during her final months and whispered to her at the end, “look out for my children.” By then, her children were grown and self-sufficient. But, as Mom and Aunt Jane understood, children remain children and mothers remain mothers. And the family’s legacy is carried forward.
Mom doesn’t fear death. She will die one day understanding why she lived. There are, in the meantime, just a few more things she would like to accomplish.
She is writing a novel about our family — for our family. Early each morning, facing Iron Mountain rising out of our lake and bundled in a seersucker robe and nylon white slippers, she hunched over her leather-top writing desk, fingers blue corded with veins and brown spots, typing an account of our family’s history. She infuses every scene with facts gathered over a lifetime and gracefully frames them with a novelist’s imagination.
I look forward to my signed copy.
Jim DeSimone is a principal at Orlando-based Knob Hill Companies and is a founding partner of Winter Park Magazine. He was previously vice-president of corporate affairs for Darden Restaurants, director of com-
munication for the City of Orlando and a reporter and communications counsel for the Orlando Sentinel. He has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Florida, a masters degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Maryland College Park and a J.D. from the College of William and Mary.