My husband’s godmother passed away last night at the age of 100, and attention should be paid. Here are some facts:
Madeleine Alena Hebert entered this world on August 22, 1915, in Montpelier, VT. She was number 10 of 13 children born to Alexandre and Alouisia Berube Hebert. She served in the WAC for three years during WWII before receiving an honorable discharge and the rank of sergeant. While stationed in Texas, she met Captain Andrew Melgard. They were married on April 25, 1946. They had no children. Andy died in 1995. Madeline lived alone until dementia made assistance necessary. She died on January 31, 2016.
But this, of course, isn’t really her story. None of us is a jumble of facts and dates. We come with colors and textures. We act and react. We leave an imprint on this world that can’t be measured by statistics alone.
Let’s add more:
Madeline’s parents were French-Canadian immigrants who became farmers in Vermont, but her father was also a granite sculptor with a wonderful singing voice. He died just after the war ended in 1945, which meant that he was gone before Madeline’s marriage in 1946. Madeline outlived all of her siblings except one, and saved death announcements and remembrances of the brothers and sisters who passed before her. Even when dementia robbed her of recent memories, she still could recall ice-skating in the cold Vermont winters of her youth.
While serving in the WAC, Madeline graduated from the army administration school located at the East Texas State Teacher’s College in Commerce, Texas. She saved her dog tags and military Medal of Good Conduct in a special box. She also saved Andy’s Bronze Star (received for meritorious service as an infantry tank destroyer in the European theater during the last eight months of WWII).
Madeline changed the spelling of her name at will. She was born Madeleine Alena, but in recording facts about her family years ago, she referred to herself as “Madlyn.” Her army dog tags list her as “Madeline.” She’s “Madeline” on her marriage license, “Madlyn” in newspaper accounts of her wedding, and “Madelyn” in the wedding announcement mailed to friends and family before she and Andy married in a what her saved documents proclaim a “mixed marriage” (she was Roman Catholic, he was Protestant). But in Andy’s loving letters to her, she is his “Madelyn.”
No statistic can reflect Madeline’s love and self-sacrifice in nursing Andy through his final illness and death. He died on her eightieth birthday.
Madeline worked as an administrative assistant after the war. She gardened. She baked. She was one heck of a sharp bridge player. She loved her godson, the child of her best friend down the street. She baked special cakes for him, always gave him a warm welcome when he knocked on her door, and included him in her prayers. The love and care she poured into the beginning of his life created a bond that allowed him to provide the same for her at the end of her life.
And even these additional facts allow only a glimpse of Madeline Alena Hebert Melgard, who lived for a little over a century on this earth.
In Hamilton, currently on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda writes these lyrics:
You have no control/Who lives/Who dies/Who tells your story.
Madeline left no children to pass along those family tales that begin as quirks, funny events, and even annoyances, yet somehow become our dearest memories. I don’t have the intimate personal knowledge that can only come from a lifetime of living with someone. I am not the best one to tell this story, but because Madeline herself left behind a few newspaper clippings, greeting cards, and notes, I can see what was important to her and try to remember. It isn’t right for a hundred years upon this earth to vanish without a trace.
Tell your story. Tell it in family gatherings, with friends, in writing or recordings. Be proud of it (or make amends until you can be proud of it). Leave more than a trace. And, just as important, listen when others speak of their lives and memories as well. Our collective lives and stories are what keep us human and whole.