Honoring the Dead and the Living

My niece is studying algebra in school, she tells me. I'm telling myself that it's because she's precocious, not because she's getting older. I guess I'm not quite ready to accept that.

My niece is precocious, that's for sure. Give her an audience and she's in heaven, raining down drama and hilarity on the just and unjust among us. She likes to put on grand demonstrations--a dance here, a wedding there, a five-act play everywhere--but I think her best work is off the cuff, one-liners that cement themselves in the memory of the hearer and will define her in the minds of her loved ones until only an even better line displaces it. I take credit for that, if I do say so myself: as her godfather and official crazy uncle, I designated her very first catch-phrase ("That's what I'm talking about!") and formally acknowledge each new zinger as soon as I hear it. Last night's entry? "What the heck, lady?" directed at her grandmother.

Precociousness is power, and power always has the capacity to cause pain. Last night my niece discovered a collection of written tributes to my late grandmother (her great-grandmother). She had died before my niece was born, and as the matriarch of a large, precocious family, her death had generated a fair amount of circumspection among her kids and grandkids. At the time I was mailing out a monthly newsletter, of which I devoted an issue to her; my uncles and aunts wrote eulogies and childhood memories; my mother wrote a poem. All these had been collected and curated by my mother and distributed to the whole family, some of whom were gathered last night at my brother's house.

Enter my niece, stage left. Hopped up on ice-cream cake and extroversion, she grabbed the booklet and flipped through it, arriving eventually at my newsletter. "My grandmother was . . ." she began to read, then interrupted herself: "Boooorrrrinnnng!" She then proceeded to "edit" the newsletter entry, which for a child her age amounts to embellishment along the lines of the Amplified Bible ("She lived the bulk of her life on a farm--with chickens, and cows, and hay, and mud . . .") and demonstrative body language: stepping dramatically to the left, then to the right, her hands all along flapping in the air like a penguin ready to take flight.

It was funny at first. As someone who admires moxie, I found it entertaining and rewarded her with laughs. But then she turned to my mom's poem and started up again. My mother, the poet who for years taught the love and power of poetry to kids only a little older now than my niece. My mother, who as a sister of seven can recall a lifetime of the inevitable injuries that come from being always around precocious people. My mother, the daughter who wrote this poem on the occasion of her own mother's death.

My niece never met my grandmother. I wonder how they would have related to one another; both of them witty and sly and lovers of laughter, I can see traces of my grandmother's gleam in the irritated sideways glances my niece occasionally throws my way. And yet their particular precociousness took shape in very different eras, in very different settings. My grandmother, attending to dying relatives on her century farm in an era before computers and cable television and the Sixties' civil disobedience, an era in which people lived closer to death and experienced more fully the cycle of life. My niece, coming into her own during an age of dramatic and rapid change, when every minute of every day has a soundtrack, when every person is a brand to be managed, when new information overwhelms tradition, when the bonds between memory and creativity are frayed and nearly severed. They would have liked each other, I'm sure, but my niece and my grandmother would have struggled to understand each other.

They also would have had very different responsibilities to one another. My grandmother's, to change my niece's diapers and to tell her right from wrong till she could figure it out for herself. My niece's, to listen to my grandmother's stories and remind her that she's not forgotten simply because she's old, to remember her after her death and to respect the legacy that my niece and her siblings and her parents and my mother and I are living out day after day after day just by living. Responsibility is not something that comes naturally, I think; it's something we commit ourselves to, something we have to remember to pass on to those who come after us.

Last night my niece and I danced. A lot. I hate dancing, but I'll do it for her because it's funny and it's a thing that I can share with her, a memory I can keep of her. Her mother shouted from the sidelines, "Someday you'll dance with your uncle Dave at your wedding." That made me sad; I'm not ready to acknowledge that she, like me and my mother and everyone, is getting older. But it also made me happy, because it foreshadows a future in which our lives remain knitted together. There's responsibility embedded in that observation from my sister-in-law, but it's commingled with a promise.

Every year on the anniversary of my niece's baptism I write her a little note. Like my note about my grandmother, it's reflective and circumspect. In it I try to draw lines between my niece's life and the grand story being written by God, and I try to make it easier for her to grow up and accept the challenges and responsibility that are foisted on her as each year passes. Last night I imagined her--no, her children, actually--coming across these letters long after I'm dead, reading the first line, throwing up their arms and shouting "Boooorrrrinnnng!" The thought was a little sad at first, I admit, but I got over it. They'll just be kids, after all, and I think it's their privilege as kids to play with whatever they lay their hands on. Any unintended injury that leads out of it won't have robbed me of anything, won't have undone any of the work the letters were intended to do. It'll be a little sad, but it'll undoubtedly be funny.


Anonymous said…
Margaret would have love this, as she would have loved her great-grand daughter. And she would have howled with laughter at "Booooorrrrinnnng!"

Bless the beasts and little children and grandmothers and the grandsons who write about them.

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