In Russell Banks’s office is the plaster cast of a gravestone angel, its only inscription “Remember Death.” He discusses its significance:
It was a memento mori. I don’t think I even knew what a memento mori was exactly, although growing up in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts, I’d certainly seen plenty of them in old cemeteries and churchyards. Mostly, they struck me as unpleasant reminders of Puritanism, the wages of sin and the flames of hell, more creepy than religious. This was 1963. I was pointedly irreligious and whatever the opposite of puritanical is. But something about this particular reminder got through to me, as if I had never linked the two words together before, had never probed the meaning of either one alone or truly considered the imperative mood, and I had to own it, had to bring it home to our little apartment and hang it above my writing table, so that every time I looked up from my struggle to write my first poems and stories, I would see it, and I would remember death. Which is not all that easy to do when you are still in your early 20s, in excellent health, have not been to war, and have not yet lost to death anyone close to you. Even Jack Kennedy was still alive and well in Washington, D.C. …
For half a century I have carried that memento mori with me—from New Hampshire to North Carolina in the mid- and late-’60s, back to New Hampshire, to Jamaica in the mid-1970s, to New York City and Princeton, New Jersey, to upstate New York where I have lived in recent years, and now to Miami where I spend winters. Wherever I have set up my desk and sat myself down to write, my angel has looked down and murmured, Remember Death.
(Photo by Mel B.)