Monday, October 7, 2013

8/100 (letter to my great-grandmother)

Dear Evelyn,

I've been spending so much time with you lately that it feels strange to have stopped.

For several weeks in a row there, you consumed most of my thought space. I had expectations when I set out to write about you. I expected that there would be little to say, for we know so little of you. I expected to be comfortable with gaps in our lack of knowledge. And I expected to be emotional.

That last part, of course, turned out to be true. But I did not expect to be so emotional. I did not expect to feel a shaking to my fingertips as I found out more things about you. I did not expect the writer part of me to thrill at the story aspect of your life while the woman, daughter, and sister part of me grieved for your loss, for your lonely hours confused and misunderstood (and possibly mistreated) in a mental asylum now abandoned and left to the ghosthunters. I did not expect to relate so deeply to you, to find kinship with you even in the ways we both -- you and I -- attempt to make sense of the quirks and deviations in our expected picture of a happy, mature, adult life.

The other expectations were, of course, proven wrong. For a woman of whom we know so little, you offered us so much. I could not get to you, immediately, so I had to get to the space around you -- like when one can't see the shape of something, only the negative space that surrounds it. If you can fill in enough of the negative space, then eventually there's an entire outline, a portrait in reverse. And that's what I was able to make of you, Evelyn. There is no record of your words, no list of the people you met, or reports of how you filled your days. But we have this negative space, and with that, it's possible to paint a picture of where you were, of how you lived. We can speculate about what you experienced. We can empathise with you. It does not matter if we do not know what you did. We can consider what you felt. As one memoir theorist puts it, we can move away from thinking of you as an achieving subject and instead look at you as an experiencing subject. And you certainly experienced a lot.

One last thing I did not expect, Evelyn. I did not expect that writing about you would open doors full of stories and memories with my grandmother, your firstborn daughter. I knew she would share and that I would cherish it, but I did not think that it would be something I would recognise as rare and precious even while I was experiencing it. She is almost eighty now, and times for sharing cannot go on forever. I'm thankful that you gave us the opportunity for this one.

We would not be here now if you were not there, then, and it still saddens me that I could not have known you; that my mother, your granddaughter, could not have known you; that my grandmother, your firstborn, did not know you.

But we are doing our best to know you now, and what we know, we love.


PS. The day after I finished writing about you, I came across this passage in a book by Jandy Nelson. I can relate, and I think you would, too:
"Whatever makes a woman leave two little kids, her brother, and her mother, and not come back for sixteen years... I mean, we call it wanderlust, other families might not be so kind."
"What would other families call it?" I ask. He's never intimated anything like this before about Mom. Is it all a cover story for crazy? ...
"Doesn't matter what anyone else would call it, Len," he says, "This is our story to tell."
This is our story to tell.


  1. I'm feeling emotional now, too. That's all.

  2. Just... wow. I can see your Ma in this picture.

  3. For the eighth time.

    This was wonderful to read as an ending to the study that brought Evelyn to life for us.


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