When I was ten my grandmother handwrote a chapter book for me. It was about her family, her childhood memories, and what life was like in her corner of early 20th century France.
I was familiar with some of these stories because she had told them to me before but with the book came richer detail and more granularity, some of which would take decades to sink in. I think my grandmother knew that.
She was very aware of how different our childhoods were. Two of her own grandparents could not read. An avid reader herself, she grew up in a home that had only three books: the Larousse French dictionary and the books each of her parents had received at the end of their (elementary) school education.
My grandmother was born on February 20 so I started a tradition a couple of years ago to read a few chapters of her book to Minette around this time of the year. When I read the book I can hear my grandmother’s voice. She was an elementary school teacher. Her talent for telling stories in an articulate and lively way and her attention to meaningful details (also evident in her art work) are clearly there in her writing.
I know Minette cannot hear my grandmother’s voice as well as I can but I think the book is still an amazing bridge between them. Through the book Minette gets to know my grandmother’s joyful father, melancholy mother, moody little brother, and many other relatives, including grandparents born as far back as the mid 19th century.
My grandmother wrote about a time when homes were not heated and you would dress in front of the kitchen coal stove on winter mornings; a time when domestic tasks were a constant occupation and people entertained themselves mostly by sitting together and telling stories, often in patois (dialect), at night.
Her memories of WWI are also particularly striking: the flux of refugees coming to her safe part of France; the death of her uncle on the front in Alsace; her father being away at war and returning on rare furloughs. The joy and excitement at the beginning of those furloughs. The growing sadness as they were coming to an end: “Notre bonheur s’émiettait.” (“Our happiness crumbled.”)
I sometimes think of the multitude of past lived lives that have entirely vanished from any living memory. I sometimes think of our present lives as part of this never-ending thread of vanishing lives. I visualize this as an immense dark brown fabric at the edge of which lives being lived appear as a cluster of a vibrant warm color dots, then fade to brown when they end and the fabric grows further.
I also have this idea that, beyond our actual life span, each of us has an extended life span that goes from the birth of the oldest person they remember vividly to the death of the youngest person that will remember them vividly. The oldest person I remember vividly, in a couple of short fragments, is actually my grandmother’s father, Alphonse, who was born in 1883. As for the youngest person who will remember me vividly, I don’t know who that will be and how long they will live, but it seems pretty likely my extended life span (and most everyone’s nowadays) will exceed two centuries.
My grandmother passed away 25 years before my daughter was born, so Minette cannot extend her life span that way. But my grandmother lives on through her picture as a young woman in our dining room, Minette’s middle name, and her precious book and art pieces. The book stands out in particular because all those years ago she thoughtfully crafted a durable tie with me, but also connected my unborn child to her French family history and her French heritage. I know the book will mean less to the next generation, if there is one, but I also know it is a labor of love that matters in our lives. For now, my grandmother’s life has far from vanished.
Here we are in 2020s America, relating to a 20th century French life. On the one hand, I am profoundly grateful for my grandmother’s gift. On the other hand, I don’t know that I will be able to replicate it. I actually don’t believe the lives that have vanished and the lives that will vanish are meaningless or in vain. If you accept, as I do, that your life will eventually vanish, even as a mere memory, it doesn’t follow it is worthless. It just means your contribution will be hidden in the fabric, not discernible.
Had my grandmother not written the book, her teaching underprivileged children and the warm love she gave me, for example, would still have made a difference. Loving and helping others to live, which can be done in many different ways and doesn’t necessarily imply selflessness, is the good that will remain in the human fabric, even when no longer distinctly remembered. It is true most of us don’t keep this in mind constantly but where else can we look when the time has come to measure our life?