When we think of the kindest things we can do for a parent whose time on earth is coming to an end, I wonder how many of people think of a love letter that will serve as the eulogy. It is not easy to watch a parent weaken, and in the world of what to do to bring joy and peace of mind, we often think of physical comfort and pleasure. For me, a love letter is the best answer.

A love letter, of course, is one that focuses on someone’s finest qualities, the happiest memories and the valuable lessons you learned. A love letter will happily ignore the difficult or rage-filled moments even when it may all be still right there in your heart and mind in bold print.

In other words, this letter is what we do in a eulogy, and I think the eulogy or the obituary for a parent may best serve when written before death and sent as a love letter. Why not assure your parents that you still remember the good and that you know who they were at their best?

What a relief it is for a parent to know that you remember the good and have forgiven the difficult, that you listened and that you paid attention and that you have reached adulthood as a strong and compassionate human being. What a gift it is to let a parent know they can leave this world in peace knowing they did so many right things.

Isn’t one of the greatest gifts knowing you have been heard? Such an easy gift to bestow so why not do it while you still have the chance? The bonus here is that you get to bathe in the positive, which will bring a smile to your lips, ease to your breathing and be a time of just plain fun. I decided to write the following to my very complicated mother to let her know how I would remember her.

Dear Mom,

It is funny how memories come a-calling. I bought myself a Revlon lipstick the other day, a gorgeous rosy pink. I have not bought anything Revlon for decades. As I smeared it across my mouth, the scent of it was absolutely overpowering – they haven’t changed that since Bette Davis was a girl!

And, thank goodness. Because it was the start of a very nice trip down some olfactory memory lane of Los Angeles in the days before smog was a word, sanitary napkins came in a plain brown-paper wrapped box and no one locked a car door. These were the days girls had to wear skirts or dresses to school, and tennis shoes were not considered proper dress for anything but gym.

As I stood there bathed in that 1940s aroma, I knew it was the scent of you on your way out for an evening. And right on the tail of that came the memory of the Faberge perfume in that lovely bottle. That whiff was such a constant. It was a sign of a life beautifully lived.

What was the name of your own red Revlon? Something with a “scarlet” or “melon” in the name? And what was the name of the Faberge perfume? I know there were four. Yours was the green bottle. Aphrodisia.

And as sure as the ankle bone’s connected to the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone, that fragrance-memory brought back the picture of you and your always well-thought-out personal style dressed for an evening out, and, yes, I remember specific outfits and dresses Sherrie Bourne. And shoes. And bags. And the care with which you always dressed and still do. And your faithful attention to detail.

I am still glad to know that carrying a fresh handkerchief is pretty much a sign of being civilized. No match for a wad of Kleenex that leaves a layer of fuzz all over the bottom of the purse. My now grown daughters still laugh at me for my constant offering them a handkerchief if they need to blow their noses. I don’t care.

I knew that table-setting was an art form and beautifully served dinners a tribute to everyone at your table. Mealtime was a celebration of being together as family at the end of the day. Beautiful vases of flowers and bowls of fruit always present (I know you still do that and in some of the same vases and bowls) a mark of your own style. I do those things, too, and I always know where it comes from.

Never a wilted vegetable in your life and no flower petal seemed to sag. Standards were high. Never a meal with a flawed edge. I remember going with you to the Farmer’s Market for strawberries and melons because the best of each thing was carried somewhere specific. No sloppiness ever passed your door. “Oogalosta” was for other people.  It was Benesch for some pastries and Henri something-or-other for Napoleans, which I remembered in an instant the other day when I went to buy some myself for a dinner party. Someone used to pronounce it “Mapoleum”, and although I can’t remember who did that I do remember that it was always good for a laugh.

And the trips to Fairfax where Tommy at Ma Gordons lit up when you came into the store. And Mr. Rosenbloom knocking on the door with deliveries. You were always at work keeping things fresh, beautiful and delicious.

The scent of baking potatoes and sizzling tri-tip? You know how I still love that. The perfect end to a winter’s day is a house with that aroma wafting from the kitchen.

Well, I must say growing up with the lessons of what made a home beautiful and welcoming were not lost. I see how my daughters entertain; their generosity and spirit with which they make people welcome, the bowls of fruit and vases of flowers, and I know that somewhere that style comes from you through me to them.

Funny the magic in a new tube of Revlon lipstick, no?

Love,

Janet

It was a simple letter with a few specifics. And odd as it may seem, once that letter was in her hands, every time I went to visit her in her last year, she mentioned it to me as if she just received it. No, she was not suffering dementia at all, but that letter was a constant and fresh reminder that her life made a permanent and positive mark on mine, that her values would travel down the generations and that she, in her way, made the world more beautiful.

I know that once even an expected and not at all tragic passing befalls us, we are frantic with the sad chores that come with death and diminished at the loss. We are in no frame of mind to think in the unruffled way and with peace of mind that we need to have in order to write the best letter.

If we write it before loss comes, we can think in leisure about what we loved, plan the letter and make rational decisions about things like what kind of stationery will best carry our message, how big our handwriting should be so that it can be read until the end when eyesight may fail, how to embellish the envelope that is the gift wrap for this gift – all part of a great love letter.

Dying, even at its most peaceful, may be hard enough; why not see our parents out of this life with the same love and preparation they showed as they brought us into this life? When the time comes, you can read this letter aloud, and share with the world the best about a parent who guided your life.

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Janet Gallin

Janet Gallin

I was raised in the clear air of the Hollywood Hills in the days when pregnancy tests involved the death of rabbits, before "smog" was a word, when street parking was plentiful and empty weed-filled lots dotted Wilshire Boulevard. I tell you this only to say I am no newcomer to Planet Earth. I don’t like to brag, but I do think experience is worth something. My time in San Francisco started 52 years ago with U.C. Berkeley, graduation, marriage and work as a juvenile probation officer for Alameda County. Life morphed from one stage to the next; two daughters (I wanted ten just like them but was advised not to be greedy), a stint as a fund-raiser for non-profits, single motherhood (hardly my goal, but I discovered that taking responsibility is uplifting and changes daily routine into endless adventure and infinite-loop joy) and then twenty-five years ago a lovely remarriage. I have always been hooked on the miracle of both spoken and written communication and a sucker for clarity. And, I lean toward the bright side of any story. So my course finally became clear. Writing that reflects a life in its truest light; the good, the bad, the funny, the sad and always the hopeful. I have for the past 24 years written personal and family histories most often in verse form (harder to write but easier to digest) to put the thoughts and feelings of others onto paper, written speeches, obituaries, eulogies, roasts, entertainment pieces, and guidance in writing emotionally difficult letters. But all work and no play makes Janet a dull cookie, so there is dancing (clogging - American percussive), playing the violin (badly but con brio), cooking, entertaining, reading, friends, family and my two heaven-sent daughters who have by example taught me most of what I know about life. I hope I have taught them half as much. For the past many years, I have hosted a radio talk show called Love Letters Live and have written a column for the Examiner.com by the same title. The joy of letting others shine is incomparable. I am very grateful that I have been able to translate this into a life's work.

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