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By Bethany Thornton

It happens suddenly when I turn on the radio or smell a certain perfume. I've experienced it in the boardroom and at the pool, on a walk and in the doctor's office. I'm stopped mid-step by a memory that is so real it requires a splash of cold water to regain my sense of time and place.

Until recently, I had a mother who phoned daily, stopped in almost-daily and regularly joined us for Sunday dinners. I also had a grandmother, my mother's mother, living two miles away. She also joined me and my family for Sunday dinners. She was the Bingo champion of her convalescent home. Her weak heart would not allow her to do calisthenics, but her keen, unaided hearing gave her a definite advantage in Bingo.

But that was two years ago, and everything has changed. With the deaths of my mother and grandmother, I became the family matriarch at the age of 40. I have no sisters, aunts, or great aunts. I am my mother's only daughter, and she was my grandmother's only daughter. My grandmother was the only daughter of my great-grandmother. When they died, within months of each other, I became the oldest living woman in my family, a position I was unprepared, and not at all eager, to assume.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I buried myself in statistics and medical research seeking solace in stories of those who'd beaten the odds. My nine-year-old son turned to music. He learned to play Beethoven's "Fur Elise" on the piano. He chose it because he wanted to "cheer up Grandma," and he knew it was one of her favorite pieces. He practiced and practiced to the point of driving the rest of our family to ear plugs, but when he finally performed on a grand piano, just months before my mother died, the music truly healed everyone in the room. For one special moment, Mom wasn't sick, and we all felt strong and carefree.

Today, when I hear "Fur Elise" on the radio, or piped in through elevator speakers, I am transported back in time. For the rest of the world, the clock moves forward, but I am still seated next to my mother at the piano recital. When the music ends and we applaud my son's performance, the memory blurs. I send it back into hiding; to join all of the other memories perched to swoop in on me with another song, smell or image. Thoughts of Grandma are lighter and usually brought on by the sight of an elderly woman dressed in brightly colored polyester pants with a large brooch pinned to her cardigan. Grandma pushed a walker with a bow on the basket. She varied her pins and bows with each holiday season, and she especially adored the three-inch pin of a Christmas tree that she wore every year until Valentine's Day. I knew there would be few opportunities left for Grandma to don her Christmas pin, but I had at least envisioned my mother seated next to me at my childrens' soccer games, their high school graduations, their weddings.

Of all the celebrations and family gatherings, I especially miss Sunday dinners. This meal brought together four generations of stories and family history. Seated around our oval dining room table, I came to know of my grandmother's childhood on a potato farm, and my great-grandmother's singing career. Over supper I learned that high blood pressure runs in the family, and that my uncle Daniel almost burned down the family home. He was young and the fire was accidental, but the story, and the flames, grew with each telling. I never felt compelled to write down their stories or to press for details because I thought their knowledge and wisdom would naturally pass on to me over time. But something unnatural happened, my mother died before my grandmother, so our generational lines of communication became fuzzy, and soon after, non-existent.

Now, when my child has a fever, I long for a story about my great-grandma's herbal remedies, and when I can't remember how to make Thanksgiving gravy, I crave my mother's culinary secrets.

I wish I'd paid better attention, catalogued every moment of our time together and stored it all away. Like a nesting doll, I'd tuck one story inside another and know it was there for safekeeping. At any given moment I'd open the top and select a memory of my choice like, "Mom and I visit Rome," or "Grandma in the garden".

I'd never again feel the pangs of loneliness hearing "Fur Elise" or smelling Grandma's perfume. I'd walk right past mothers conversing with daughters, and I'd sail through the holidays without a tear. But for some reason, memories can't be controlled; they appear without notice, and stay until the moment is complete. And like a good poem, they take on new meaning with each visit. If only I can teach myself to stop and listen for my mother's voice hidden in these moments. If I can learn to welcome each interruption like a story around the Sunday table, then I just may find the valuable lessons my foremothers left me.

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