The Washerwoman’s Genes

December 7, 2006

Margaret, August 19, 1912-December 7, 1961

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:27 am

Years after the death of her beloved husband, journalist Lynn Sheer interviewed psychiatrist and grief-expert Jimmie Holland for the television show 20/20. Holland disputed the existence of the now-classic “five stages of grief”—the concept that people “progress” through a series of ever-healthier emotions and finally heal from a loved-one’s death. To this expert, boxing people into a rigid concept of how they are supposed to feel after a loved one dies—and when they are supposed to feel it—is punishing, not curative. Sheer quotes her: “Your pattern of grief is as unique as your pattern of love.”

For Sheer, this one sentence was liberation: she had not progressed to “acceptance” of her husband’s death, and she realized she didn’t have to, she could stay sad if she was sad. To her, embracing sorrow was a means of reconnecting with her loved one; grief was a manner of relationship.

But my deaths came well before the stages of grief were invented.

There were no expectations about mourning then. There were no constructions around experiencing a death, other than the formalities of funeral.

This doesn’t mean I grew up in some halcyon time of natural grieving. Not at all. Around death there was silence. There was the scaffold of ritual and a busy-ness of preparations that occupied adults. And there was euphemism.

“She’s in a better place.”

“The good die young, that’s the way it is.”

“God took her so early because he loved her so.”

This was meant to comfort me? God didn’t much love a thirteen-year-old girl if he took her mother. Away. Forever.

* * * * *

The culture of platitudes was, of course, a culture of suppression, a way of rushing past the pain, of boarding an express to next week, when it would be all over. Probably it was meant to cushion the bereaved in public and permit private mourning. But shallow funeral-talk—Your mother is with the angels—was just another abandonment.

The “five stages” put a slower train on the tracks through the territory of grief, with, of course, the same destination: complete recovery for the living, oblivion for the dead.

Grief became work, a job to be done and done well.

I was twenty-something when I heard of the stages of grief. It was deeply weird: at my first job after college I was assigned to write a press release about a book on thanatology, the “science” of grief. Sitting at a desk, looking out at St. John’s Cathedral where pigeons swarmed in the eye-blue sky, I read without revelation. This step-by-step pilgrimage couldn’t be retrofitted to what I’d been through. It didn’t fit my case, for, after all, nothing did. Two parents dead, dropping like dimes out of God’s pocket of a sudden, falling forever through a hole in His pants, tumbling through infinity, a bit of silver lost, written off His accounts.

Five stages of grief would be a luxury when you’re a kid on your own. You move on. You move from the dorm to an apartment so you can have your stuff all twelve months. You give up the portion of your scholarship that pays the residence hall, but start to collect the veteran and Social Security survivor benefits for minor children attending college. You wait tables and you pay the mortgage on the family house until the sale goes through. You pay the undertaker, you pay the doctor who closed your dad’s eyes, you share out the few thou that’s left with your sibs, and you put what’s left of your dad’s life in a savings account for some rainy day.

I shed platitudes then.

I swore never to say, “passed on.” I was at war with pillowed sorrow. I would say “dead.” This speaking formed a tribute to them, though I didn’t realize it then. I honored them by showing that I knew what had really happened. They had died from life. Their children were tossed to the center. I would bite grief and chew it.

* * * * * *

So my mother is my first ancestor.

And, my father is my second.

In genealogy I complete myself. I get them back—and the others too, that went before. I have them, not the way I did, but a different way. Not such a great way—I know—but it is the only way.

Seeing their names on a page of the census, opening an envelope with a vital record inside, is like glimpsing a familiar face in the window of a passing train. The moment goes by too fast to wave, too fast to attempt any signal at all. But the trace lingers, an image in the mind, ink on a page, bits of data in storage, indexed now for retrieval through all time.

Decades have passed, but I still have grief. I look out over my scraggly fall garden and think of my Mom’s zinnias, carnival colors outside our front door, then drying stiff in the turn of the season. More, I think of her similar moments, hand on a mug of coffee, quiet in the house, children at school, the meaning of it all drifting in the air outside a window, leaves circling in a fall wind.

My sorrow transmutes to empathy as I learn details of their struggle. Instead of stunned, mugged, plundered, by loss, I can feel about them. I feel for them the way you feel for a person you know and love, whose life entangles with yours.

Genealogy is my relationship with my family. It is my grief still alive.

The Big-Big Parents

Filed under: Story — by WWG @ 11:16 am

What’s so grand about grandparents? I wondered about this as a child, you know. Typical of me: snagged by words that didn’t quite fit, words that sprouted questions.

Now I realize, of course, it must be from the French. Les grand parents: crunch that r in the back of your throat, drop the plosive d, squeeze your nose tight. And this, translated, means, big parents, big as in Grand Canyon.

Now the word makes me picture an extended family, with a tiny, tiny baby held between the regular-size Momma and Poppa, and all of them loomed over by the swollen giant shadows of les Grand Parents.

Today people rue the loss of the extended family, but les grandparents looming is not what every momma and poppa want.

My first home was a cottage next to my Irish grandmother’s house. It was wood frame with minimal amenities (as one would say today)—a water closet (one toilet in, yes, a closet), a kitchen sink, a gas stove, an ice box. (I saw the ice man cometh throughout my youth). The house was heated by a coal furnace in the parlor (not a cute wood stove, mind you, a furnace, possibly installed by my plumber-dad). I was bathed in a washtub; my parents must have borrowed a shower somewhere from time to time. Before us, my mother’s sisters and their husbands and babies bunked there until they got their feet under them and moved on.

Until I was five, I saw Grandma Jennie regularly. She was too old to come across the yard and visit us. Heck, she’d been born, to my best estimates, in 1874.

Mostly I remember being in her house—a dark room, people crowded in, chatter of voices, milky tea in big cups for the children, wooden chairs and a table of some kind. I’m not even sure if the room I remember was the parlor or the kitchen, but it was a room for laughing in.

One time she did visit us, at some small family gathering in the cottage. She and I went for a walk hand-in-hand on the road across from the house. I strained to pull a flower, a blue cornflower, my favorite, and I pulled her right over. She couldn’t get back up, but she held on tight to me, afraid I’d get hurt in the road. I yelled, and she yelled, and everyone poured out of the house to rescue her. When they learned it was all because of a flower, they yelled at me for knocking her down. She wasn’t, of course, exactly steady on her feet, being not only old but partial to whiskey. Nevertheless: I’m sorry, Grandma.

You don’t want to be the cause of somebody falling in the road, especially your ancestor. I think we’re reaching for flowers here. We’re hoping to make that chart of les big-big and les big-big-big parents. The chart where they’re up above us, looming. The part about where they fall down, well, it’s part of the narrative, small print on the next page.

* * * * * *

Les Big-Big, Cont.

We got our own house and became our own solo nuclear family. Eventually my dad built an apartment on the second floor for my other grandma, his mother. Here is where some actual looming came in.

Grandma Josie was rather opinionated about how children should be raised. In particular, she thought they should be raised Methodist. She raised my older half-brother so, even though I believe he’d been baptized in a Catholic Church—his deceased mother was a Kildare. And here my Dad had gone and married another Catholic.

When I went upstairs to pay my grandmother a visit, she tried to evangelize me. She reminisced about a blind preacher she had heard speak in her youth at a “revival” (whatever that was). She showed me her Bible and read to me from it and seemed faintly shocked that I was completely unfamiliar with the book. Never mind its contents—its tissue pages and red titles were nothing I’d ever seen before. I was seven or so at the time, and I was getting an A in catechism, but her lesson introduced an alien world. She spoke gently against statues and Virgin Marys and told me to watch a particular preacher on the TV who didn’t need fancy robes and ringing bells to spread the word of Jesus.

I didn’t exactly rat on my Grannie—but with bursting mixed emotions at hearing so much new in the realm of God—I told my mom. I wanted to hear her view.

It was not positive: Grandma is a different religion and she doesn’t believe the same as us. Ignore it.

But it didn’t end there for the grown-ups. There was some sort of late-night discussion, heated enough I could hear it from my bed, about this bad behavior on my grandma’s part. I never visited her by myself again. There were from then on quite separate worlds in our divided house.

The Ladies Aid from the Methodist Church that Grandma had attended in her previous town picked her up for church. She didn’t much visit us downstairs, and we didn’t visit her up there. She watched us children come and go through her windows. She grew African violets in a planter.

Once I expressed to my mother some sorrow about not knowing my grandmas very well. In late elementary school I had become aware of children whose grandmothers were close family. My mother told me her philosophy that it wasn’t good for children to be too close to their grandparents, because they would be too hurt when the old folks passed away. I’m sorry, Grandma.

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