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FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS: Why It Took 10 Years to Buy a Memorial Bench for My Mother…and What I Learned Along the Way

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It was a “simple plan.”

When my mother passed away, I decided to memorialize her with a bench and plaque donated to the Whittemore preserve in New Jersey.

Ten years later, nothing has yet been installed or delivered. Still, I am hopeful of making the Whittemore’s June 1 Community Day deadline to celebrate her.

I can’t guarantee that I’ll make it. Here’s why.

I am looking for the perfect sentence to express who my Mom was. I want it to resonate to a world of strangers.

It is the hardest writing assignment I have ever had.

What words can represent her through eternity?

My rational self has visions of walkers resting at peaceful moments on “my mother’s bench,” inspired by the words that I wrote to her everlasting memory.

That’s grandiose enough. But my irrational self hopes that my mother will sit with me on the bench and bring me closer to her in tangible ways. I will smell her scent, hear her voice, collapse in her arms.

Are there words that can make that happen?

There’s plenty of help to be had. 1-800-Flowers provides sayings for use on small memorial stones, such as, “When you left us, we lost an angel.” I could see my mother doing a pretend gag at such an aphorism, even though she liked angels and wore selected angel jewelry.

The bench plaque manufacturers provide two-line poems (extra charge for each additional letter), like:

Your life was a blessing, your memory a treasure
You are loved beyond words and missed beyond measure

Then there are the sayings that admit your loved one was not such a big deal, but at least was essential to you. My favorite is:

To everyone else you might be just a cat, but to me, you meant the world

Great minds chime in as well:

The ever-cheerful Dr. Seuss suggests: Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.

Or

A.A. Milne’s: How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

The slightly curt, Robert Benchley: Death ends a life, not a relationship.

Then there are the realistic and scary sayings:

Till memory fades and life departs, you live forever in our hearts

Will I forget her…never! But who will remember her when I am gone?

If I am forgotten, will everyone who came before me be forgotten, too? Do I need my own bench?

I’m not the first to consider this. You can’t beat the Brits for coming up with plaque sayings for themselves while alive:

Forgotten but not gone.

Perhaps if I focus on a trait or saying that my mother was known for…

My mother acted in the moment and gave folks the kind of special help and support for which there is no title or award.

At a family event, I found her waiting outside of a bathroom stall holding a child’s coat. I later learned that a little girl had gone to the loo without her parents. But she was “holding it in” because she did not know how to hang up her new coat. The little girl was so uncomfortable that she was about to burst into tears.

My mom understood this without being told. She took the kid’s coat and waited for her as long as the child needed. At my mother’s funeral, that little girl—now a woman—told me how much it meant to her as a child and what a horror it would have been if my mother were not there.

My mother’s mark on the world came from uncountable gracious acts that supported others on their journeys. She was my best friend and a friend to all she encountered.

One of her seminal sayings was, My money’s on you.

She would say this while gently putting her hand on your shoulder and looking you in the eye. My mother was shy and quiet. I rarely ever saw her laugh. But when she told you that her money was on you, you went out and fulfilled your dream. You just did.

At her funeral and for years thereafter, I met people who told me how she encouraged them to follow their dreams.

Unfortunately, some of them were my children’s nannies. I always wondered why they left to open restaurants, move to St. Lucia or Australia, or to get medical degrees. My mom found out what made them tick. When they forlornly expressed their tentative hopes for the future, she would say, “Go do it. My money’s on you.” My kids would lose another nanny.

My mother’s other pet phrase was, You deserve it. It is a great gift when someone can make you feel deserving, whether you are or not.

But how would these phrases look on a bench?

Would anybody understand the power of those words without her presence? Would she be a perpetual source of motivation to all who read them?

I brought the question to my friend and neighbor, a wordsmith and a PR guru. She suggested…

Encouragement: “My money’s on you.”

Confidence: “You deserve it.”

Is this good enough?

I feel a childish pride in memorializing my mother. It’s much like the days when I would get an A on an exam. I would hide the paper behind my back. Then I would give it to her with a flourish as if it were a gift.

I want to get an A in plaque-writing.

Things will only get worse when I move on to my father’s and my aunt’s plaques.

Dads get short shrift in memorial writing…

I miss you loads
My life is Sad
I love you loads
my dear ole Dad

And aunts are given less attention than pets.

Now I understand the effort it takes to get it right…how much the giver receives in creating memorials…and how much the process rather than the result can bring you closer to those you love.

I used to wonder at plaques that merely read, In honor of my loving Mother. Couldn’t they do better?

Now I know.

There are no words.

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