Inflated with wine the other night, I said one or two unkind things about my grandmother (on my father’s side) which I regret now, not because I don’t think they’re true, as far as that goes, but because it’s not very gracious to speak ill of others when they’re gone, especially when they are family. I would like to say a couple of more flattering, or at least more sympathetic, words about her now.
The first, and probably the last, thing that should be said about my grandmother is that, as far as I can tell, she really did care about us in her own way. Our relationship was always perhaps a sort of generic one between grandparent and grandchild, nor do I suspect that her attitude towards and treatment of my brother and me would have been much different no matter what we were like. But, after all, her responsibility to us, ethically speaking, lay in that familial relation, and ethical duties tend by their nature to be general and impersonal. That our relationship didn’t evolve into something more personal and individual, as it did with my other living grandparents, is unfortunate, but it can’t really be considered blameworthy. She fulfilled her responsibilities and duties to her family, and I would be lucky to be able to say the same for myself.
Then, too, her family responsibilities were perhaps greater in some respects than that of many people. For one thing, she was the second wife of my grandfather, who already had a son by a previous marriage. His first wife had died, and he married my grandmother just before shipping out to Europe during the Second World War (the timing, as you might imagine, was not entirely a coincidence). So rather than the support of a husband and the prospect of children of her own, her first experience of marriage, and for several years thereafter, was: the burden of a life alone, and the necessity of supporting herself; the uncertainty of not knowing when, or if, her husband would come home; the anxiety of worrying about whether he might be killed or maimed; and the responsibility of raising another woman’s child. It was almost a kind of bait-and-switch: she went to the altar with a man, and got instead as a companion an alien child that she had to take care of.
And this was in some ways more typical of her marriage than a house full of family and kin, because while my grandfather did return home alive, he died relatively young, and she survived him by three decades. Unlike him, she never remarried. So you could say that her marriage greatly exceeded the bounds of her life together with her husband. She had friends, of course, and a male companion of sorts during her last good years, but they didn’t live together, it wasn’t the same thing as having someone to turn to when you hear strange noises in the night, having someone to eat with on windy evenings and to wake up with on sunny mornings. It’s strange, because I always thought of her as someone that could never stand to be alone, but alone is basically what she was for most of her life. At least part of this, her perseverance through the first absence, during the war, has to be credited to her devotion and loyalty. I don’t know whether this is also why she never married again, but it seems to me that, without any proof to the contrary, we ought to assume that it was.
Her life alone was not much relieved by visits from her surviving family members, since we did not particularly seek out her company in her declining years. I, for one, saw her, to be perfectly honest, as narrow-minded and prejudiced, which certainly wasn’t conducive to closeness. I worried about those traits because I perceived them in myself and tried to excise this heritage from my personality, which probably made me harsher towards her, unfairly so, to the point that I even saw her death the very week that I moved to Paris for a year as a symbolic sign of the possibility of breaking free of the provincial benightedness that she represented for me. This is not quite as unkind as it sounds, because, as I suggested, at least it shows an awareness that our criticism of others generally has its origin in our anxiety about our own defects, and in my case, at least, my hostility was really directed mostly at elements of myself as part of a conscious struggle to improve my character. And she was more than merely a symbolic proxy, because obviously there was very likely a causal connection between her possession of certain personality traits and my own. And yet I failed to draw the most obvious conclusion from this: if she passed on certain undesirable qualities to me, if, that is, they are heritable, then rather than being some gratuitous bit of malignity inflicted on me by her, as I somehow vaguely and irrationally felt them to be, she very likely got them in turn from some ancestor, and not by choice. So she would have had just as much right as me to regard herself as a victim of heredity, and may even, like me, have felt a certain amount of suffering at being subject to those flaws.
And in addition (to the extent that the mind is an extension of the body and analogies can hence be drawn with it), while the weaknesses and debilities of the body are manifold, except in a few crises of infection health is seldom improved by simply amputating parts of it. Rather, they must be nourished and strengthened. Of course I don’t mean that prejudice and narrow-mindedness should be nourished and strengthened. In order for the analogy to make any sense you have to view these, as I do, not as discrete traits but as failings of perception and sympathy, a weakness that in her case culminated in a full-scale wasting away of the mind in her last years. It might be somewhat in a person’s power to lower their risk of this happening through the cultivation of certain more (mentally) healthy and active habits, but much the same could be said about heart disease, yet we don’t blame someone if they contract that. This was an ordeal and a hardship of the same order for her and those around her (especially my father, who assumed ultimate responsibility for her care), and hence deserving of compassion. I’m not sure that I ever adequately felt or showed this to her while she was alive. I hope that at least perhaps I can now for those that still remember her.