Re: Skeletons II

Re: Skeletons II

Thoughts and Provocations

It doesn’t take much poking around to discover that family history is part of something much bigger. My mother’s grandparents on her mother’s side were German immigrants. This makes them unusual simply because leaving home is unusual. Most people don’t. Some historians believe this statistical finding accounts for American individualism, our refusal to enact gun control, for example. The idea that we retain vestigial memories of what our ancestors did and believed, the air they breathed, what they ate, and that these can affect us generations later is another idea in circulation. A touching example is the retention of religious practices by descendants of Sephardic Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquisition now living in New Mexico or Latin America. It also seems to be true that these memories have been sustained by a ”keeper,” most often a woman who can be trusted and who takes it upon herself to pass on family secrets. Finally, my grandmother’s gradual shift from Evangelism to Methodism turns out not to be peculiar to her but the outcome for many of a major political conflict at the time of westward migration.

I wanted to write about the death of a child, not lately killed in a classroom or on the street by a cop, but in a kitchen in 1877. About the effects this out of the order, unnatural death might have had on my grandmother and her sisters. Above and below is everything I saw as related but couldn’t cram in. I had begun to mistrust my own narrative. Everyone, it seems, must have one: doctors, politicians, movie stars, drug addicts, the mentally ill. To prove they have struggled, that underneath they are ordinary, human. Sometimes it’s just a pack of lies. A fiction. We blog, we text, we tweet. We append emoticons. I knew I was breaking all the rules, writing about things I had never experienced: the death of one of my own children, physical labor, belief in God. What did I have to go on? Isolated memories, old postcards, a few letters scattered across time, stories my mother told me, some brief notations she made about her grandparents. I remembered my grandfather’s grace before meals, Bless this food to our use and us to Thy service, as meaningful to him, as solid, as the corn flakes with raisins he had everyday for breakfast, yet to me, even as a child, perfunctory.

Be not lost so poorly in your thoughts, says Lady Macbeth to her husband. But I was guiltless, simply thinking about wrongful death, which Duncan’s murder certainly is, since he was Macbeth’s king and guest and has recently rewarded Macbeth for valor in battle. So many things converged. I remembered how we sat around after dinner arguing, Ernst and I. He practiced on me, making me judge and jury. In the case of a wrongful death, his chief concern was what I would give. What would you give? What would you give? That was the refrain. It drove Ernst crazy that I never wanted to give anything. What solace could be found in money? What if there was someone like me on the jury? He would have to reframe, taking my position into account. It was his own wrongful death (too young at 58) that persuaded me in the end, too late to tell him. Money helps, I discovered, or rather, lack of money aggravates more pressing forms of pain. I wondered now what our children thought of these conversations, how old they were and whether they were listening or had already gone up to their rooms. Wrongful death is the taking of the life of an individual resulting from the willful or negligent act of a person or persons. I wanted to be careful, to leave blame out of it, not to point fingers.

Still lost in thought, in an article in the TLS on the mysterious power of Edward Hopper paintings, heavy with emotion without an obvious source, which take us somewhere, but where, beyond the everyday. There was the book I was reading, David Grossman’s Falling Out of Time. I can hardly call it a novel. It’s more a chorus of voices pitched to a wailing wall, each character lamenting the death of his or her child, one wrongful death after another, no getting away from the fact that Grossman’s twenty year old son, Uri, was killed in the last days of Israel’s war with Lebanon. Grossman, a peace activist, says that writing about his son’s death was a way of fighting against the gravity of grief. I wondered why Grossman’s eulogy at his son’s funeral moved me while his novel did not, and I put it aside, disappointed, with less than ten pages to go. Grossman is a writer I count on. To amuse me? This seemed unfair in the circumstances.

I’d also been resisting My Struggle, resisting Karl Ove Knausgaard, as the volumes, how many are there now, four I think, piled up on tables at my local bookstore. I plotted small doses, like his article in the New Yorker on the massacre at a Norwegian summer camp in 2011, struck by his paragraph about how hard it is for one person to kill another, which made me think of Hamlet and those critics who berate him for his delay in killing Claudius, who despise him for being human. I marked the passage for no reason before handing the magazine on to a friend. But as though he were stalking me, Knausgaard turned up again in the New York Times Sunday magazine, closer to home this time, busy comparing Lolita to On the Road, showing how Bob Dylan dissolves into his music, mixing his brilliant observations with a clogged motel toilet, his hunt for a still glowing cigarette fallen into a crevice in his rented Prius. Who was he to make pronouncements about America, about us? He was boring, he was maddening, and he was in the Midwest where my skeletons are buried, thinking my very own thoughts:

I considered the strangeness of that: That everything Norwegian, all that was

particular to the west coast of Norway and to the Hatloy family, had been

completely obliterated in just two generations in the U.S.

Part of my idea in the piece I was writing was to bring my grandmother’s German past (made fun of by her husband when she tried to teach her children the language, politically incorrect during both world wars) to life, even if I had to invent it.

I returned to Grossman, paging through To the End of the Land where he writes passionately about the fullness of life, which he locates in exhaustion, in the lugging of laundry tubs and backyard fig trees, in tiny socks and undershirts on a clothesline. And of course he quotes Tolstoy on happy families. But the most important thing for Grossman seems to be that the parents in the novel recognize their fleeting happiness, swapping the phrase back and forth in acknowledgement, and that they do this where they stand, in the valley of the shadow, where a sniper may have them in his sights, unless there a general, human immunity for people hanging laundry -- especially this kind of laundry.

The figure of my mother emerged from my swarm of thoughts. She was the keeper as in the words of Psalm 121: The Lord is thy keeper. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth and even forever more. I do not mean to compare my mother to God, nor to suggest that her words or mine will last forever -- just that it was she who preserved the letters and the photographs, the puppies who swung on sheets billowing in the wind, the horses, Kit and Nell, the hay mow and the wagon that nearly tipped over in the river. Her fear of cows in the field she had to cross on her way to school, and the day Howard got kicked in the head which ended the game they played with the pony. Warweek, not Marguerite, she was to her baby brother Bill, who peed in his pants because he didn’t hear it coming, Little Sharp Eyes to her Grandma Van Dyke, maker of quilts, blind in old age. She preserved her mother’s assurance on the eve of her fortieth wedding anniversary that We do not need a thing, we said last night, we never were more happily situated than now. It was the way she spoke about her parents, old, fragile, beloved, far away, that made me love them too. Did Mama die? she asked, past ninety, her memory gone, still full of longing.

Surrounded as I was by wrongful death in fiction and in the news, what should I do with these destinies obscure, these relics of a happy family? Be not lost. Be not lost.


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