The Cycle of Life, or The Ones that Came Before Me

My grandmother sent me a thirty-page family history she’d written a few years ago. It had been created for her children, she summarized, “So that you will know your story.” It delves two to three generations before her birth, explicating the lives of her mothers’ and fathers’ family.

Many of the people in her story I’d heard of; I’d even heard some of the unsavory bits, like my great-grandfather’s drinking problem, and my great-grandmother’s Victorian bigotry. I though perhaps the story would be dry, or my interest confined to the family member whom I’d grown up with and loved.

Not so. I was sucked into a fascinating journey, starting in England and Germany, and ending up in the same (then bustling, now depressed) mill town in central Massachusetts. Gentlepeople, peasants, upper-middle class merchants, lower-class workers, converged to form what would be my father’s side of the family. They lived in colorful, descriptive neighborhoods called German Town and Devon (for Devonshire, England); they went to the Whalom ballroom to dance to the big bands of the day (like Count Basie); the women were warned against driving (not a proper woman’s activity), and being seven months pregnant meant being confined to house and home.

The years of the Depression were hard on my grandmother’s family, looking forward to their Christmas present of woolen slippers crafted by their grandfather (“They were the warmest slippers I ever owned,” reminisced my grandmother), a pound of butter a week from City Hall, and a five pound bag of sugar or flour obtained for free every Friday at the local movie theater (you had to buy a ten cent ticket: “We almost never saw the movie,” my grandmother explained, the primary purpose acquiring the flour or sugar).

Then came World War II, and my grandmother’s brother entered the Air Force in order to become a pilot. Her to-be husband joined the Navy as a Pharmicist’s mate, serving in New Zealand and Brooklyn, NY. She (and most of her friends) married soon after the war ended, producing my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. Apartments were at a premium, since everyone was getting married and starting families, so when my great-grandmother became extremely ill due to complications arising from diabetes, they moved in with her and my great-grandfather, giving their apartment to couple who were close friends, the woman living with her parents and the man at the YMCA. They were ecstatic to get the apartment, since that meant they could finally get married.

My great-grandmother died at a young age, but not until she got to meet her first granddaughter, my aunt. My grandmother and my grandfather moved into their first house, and supplemented their full-time jobs with money from singing (soloists at Churches got paid $3 each Sunday, a good bit of extra money back in the forties). Soon my grandmother was pregnant again (with my uncle), and they moved to the 23-acre farm they were to occupy until my grandfather’s death in 1992. They had many wonderful years there, and I was fortunate to know the farm well myself as a small child rambling in the back woods.

My grandmother is still alive and doing very well; at 80, the favored phrase to describe her is “outliving us all.” She shovels her own driveway, mows her own lawn, and still cooks Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and birthday dinners for her family and friends. At 4’11” and the same weight for the past forty years, she claims the secret to her excellent health is, “Sleeping soundly. I’ve always slept like a rock, for at least eight hours a night. I also have chronic low blood pressure, which has helped!” (on a side-note, I inherited her low blood-pressure, but not her height – I’m 6’0″)

My grandmother never wrote any books (though she confessed to me recently that she’s been writing stories for years, letting her best friend read them, and then throwing them away – which to me, was blasphemy. What I’d give for those stories, now! I’m sure they were wonderful. Girls, let this be another lesson in self-esteem: you are what you deem yourself to be, and by saving yourself potential embarrassment, you are destroying what could be a tremendous gift), nor did she earn a college degree. She wasn’t an outspoken feminist, though she had firm opinions and crystal-clear morals. She didn’t create any great works of art, though she can knit an entire afghan in ten days flat. She volunteers for Meals on Wheels, is active in her church, and is a fiercely loyal and protective friend. She lives alone but isn’t lonely too often; she is still deeply in love with my grandfather, fifteen years since his death.

I have held myself to the highest standards since I can remember. A lawyer, a physicist, an economist, a philosopher, a mathematician, an opera singer, a film maker, a writer, a director, a composer — each of these at one point was a pinnacle, a goal to be reached. The perfect girlfriend/wife/lover/mother/daughter/sister/woman, the perfect citizen, the perfect financial being, a possessor of a perfect body – also each, at times (and some still), goals.

Still, next to my grandmother’s colorful life, mine is a dull sepia. Reading her history, and mine, has given me a weighty sense of perspective that makes the small irritations less so, yet at the same time has left me profoundly depressed. Perhaps it is because I never got a chance to meet many of those interesting characters; perhaps it is because I miss my grandmother, and want to tell her how much the story of her life has impacted my own. Perhaps it is because I feel like I don’t have the opportunities she had–strange thing to say, given the trials of her life.

Maybe I don’t need to know why I feel what I feel, and just let it take me for a while, and grieve silently, respectfully, for the ones that came before me.

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