Saturday, May 13, 2006

Life stories

I spent two days flying last week, and as I read Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (2001), I remembered why I like to pack biographies when I travel. With nothing to distract me except the occasional, accidental sight of Martin Lawrence parading around in a dress on the screen above me, I can fully sink into the details of a life. Immersed for hours, uninterrupted by work or the need to listen for my L stop, I’m able to fully enter the subject’s world. Friends, relatives, acquaintances, peripheral as they may be, become firmly placed; I don’t have to consult the index to remind myself of who’s who. For a while, I nearly live the life I read.

I had already been thinking about completed lives, and what remains of a life. Even the quietest of us leaves a lot behind—stories, letters, legal records, collections—and a good biographer can fashion those elements into a coherent narrative of a whole person. Some biographies, like Claire Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys (2002) (the best biography I’ve read), reveal a subject livelier, wiser, and more likable than we expected; others, like A. N. Wilson’s Tolstoy (1986), lead us—and the author—from admiration to astonished disgust. Regardless, a person’s life is rebuilt, assembled from scattered pieces and presented anew, giving us here the perspective of a close friend, there that of a secret diary, and elsewhere that of history. An anecdote gives a glimpse of a moment in time, and someone forever gone is returned. It’s hard to imagine a greater honor.

But most of us are never the subject of biographies. Our letters remain unread by anyone but the recipient, our diaries (unless we put them on the Internet) gather dust, and our secrets, successes, and failures remain, as we would surely prefer, our own. What lingers after us are the stories people remember and retell, the stories they repeat to each other over the years, and maybe, if we’re lucky, pass down to their children and grandchildren. For the promise that such stories would live on, Achilles was willing to sacrifice his life. Few of us are as needy as Achilles; we don't have to sacrifice our lives. We just have to live them.

So I learn that Stacey’s grandmother, on discovering that a young Stacey had managed to climb onto the roof of the garage, admonished her, not to get down, but to wear shoes up there, because the roof was dirty. And that, when asked about the internment camps that she and other Japanese-Americans were forcibly removed to in the early years of World War II, she spoke not about the deprivation, but of the people she met there and the crafts they made. And that she darned Stacey's father's socks, and she turned his collars, so that he assumed for years that everyone practiced such economies.

Or I remember that I’ll have to tell my nephew about my Great-Grandpa Colonel, an auctioneer, born late in the nineteenth century, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, but who, living his whole life in Kansas, experienced a very different twentieth century. I've been told that once he bought a new shed at an auction and, knowing that Great-Grandma Inez would not agree that they needed a second shed, attempted to hide it by placing it behind the first shed. The ploy failed. When my father first met him, on an unbearably humid Kansas night in the late 1960s, Colonel offered him ice cream, then revealed a reach-down freezer holding a dozen different flavors. My father knew from that point that he and Colonel would get along just fine. And I remember that into his early nineties Colonel, an inattentive but enthusiastic driver, delivered meals-on-wheels to housebound old folks.

Then there was my Great-Grandmother Marie. Elegant, patrician, and a bit imperious, she never seemed quite certain about children, though she was always kind to us great-grandkids. Her daughter, my Great-Aunt Mary, had a labrador retriever named Gator, who had a pet rock that he carried in his mouth. He removed it only to eat, and if it somehow went missing, the whole household was enlisted in a careful search. Years of carrying the rock wore the teeth on the right side of Gator's mouth to nubs.

And thus we keep our past and its people with us. Near the end of Wendell Berry’s elegiac novel Jayber Crow (2000) Jayber, who, being younger than most of his friend and acquaintances, has outlived most of them, thinks

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

But the rest of us remain, and we speak of our friends.


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  2. I asked my dad if I'd gotten any of the stories about my family wrong, and he corrected me on a couple of points:

    "First is the freezer. It was an upright but I doubt that it matters. The other one does, I think, just because it makes a better story. Instead of a shed, it was a wooden garage that looked a lot like the existing one. He repainted it downtown before he moved it and told his friends that he thought he could put it in front of the other one and Grandma Inez wouldn't notice it.

    My favorite story about Grandma Marie is the time she asked me to make her some chili. It was about 4:00 pm and she said, 'You know, I would really like some chili.' So I asked if they had any and she told me where to find it as well as a pan in which to heat it. After heating it, getting a bowl, silverware, and serving it to her; she said, 'Oh, I didn't really want it right now.' She had watched the whole process."