On Saturday, I had the honor of co-leading the memorial service for the Princeton Class of 1980 at our 35th Reunion. We held the remembrance in the 9/11 Memorial Garden on campus, which honors the Princetonians killed on September 11, 2001, including our classmate Robert Deraney. An a capella group sang hymns, the class president read from the Book of Psalms and I read the conclusion of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. While not a conventional selection for a memorial service, it immediately came to my mind when the class officers were creating the event. It always strikes me as mournful yet hopeful:
To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
The remembrance struck the right balance of comfort and grief, recalling roommates and friends lost over the decades, a reminder of our own mortality as the fresh graduates of 1980 are now working through retirement and grandchildren and whatever comes next in life on the far side of middle age.
On Sunday, thoughts of the memorial were on my mind when I found a copy of the Hartford Courant newspaper to read on the trip home from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut. I scanned the obituary page; this section is a signal function of newspapers, a printed record of lives as recalled by family members and friends. They reflect not just lives, but also the economic, spiritual and civic aspects of a region.
As I looked through the Courant, I found a most notable memorial, a very rare example of a literary genre you could call the do-it-yourself obituary notice, a first-person summing-up of a life well lived. Diane Cusson began her life celebration with these words:
I, Diane (Hanson) Cusson, 72, grew up in East Hampton, CT., a small rural town and died on May 27,2015. I met my husband, Kenneth “Ken” Cusson, in Manchester, CT.. I graduated from Manchester High School, Class of 1960. While Ken was home on leave in 1963 from the Air Force, he called me. We started dating and I wrote daily letters. I dedicated “Since I Fell for You” by Lenny Welch to him on radio station WDRC in Hartford. He could pick up the station while at Loring Air Force Base in Maine. I got a phone call on New Year’s Eve of that year and he proposed marriage. We got married on June 13, 1964 and have been partners and friends for 51 years. We went back to Maine for our honeymoon in my 1954 red Chevrolet with $50.
Cusson’s life review goes on for hundreds more of compelling words; I’ll leave it to readers to click through and explore her travels, faith and family. She sounds like the kind of friend and neighbor we would all value.
The idea of writing your own memorial, be it for a newspaper or the Princeton Alumni Weekly, makes sense. Have a say in your final narrative. I’ve never thought about it, but now I will. We Princetonians are practiced at this sort of retrospective self-analysis. Those of us who revel in the pageantry and rituals of the major Reunions will put pen to paper every five years to write an essay for the class Reunion book. Your collective essays add up to a relentless statement of life’s progression through decades. Last weekend marked my seventh major Reunion–and now the heat is on for me to get cracking on my online submission for the 35th Reunion essay. I’ve been a laggard about this, unusual given that the idea of writer’s block is foreign to me.
My essays, which chronicle work, lack of work, marriage, lack of marriage, fatherhood and other highs and lows of my life, get me started on the DIY memorial. They sketch my view of life at key dates; all that’s lacking is classmates’ perspectives. When the moment comes in far distant decades for PAW to run my memorial, I’d like to think the memorialist of that time can draw from my own words in the Reunions books to capture my thoughts on my life, just as Diane Cusson wrote so well about her life in the Hartford Courant.
If technology makes it available, perhaps even this very essay will be quoted as a meta-memorial, my final message to the future.