Monday, February 11, 2008

Grandma (2)

I was asked by the family to say a few words at the last night of shiva for Grandma. She was a really awesome lady, and the way in which our family has come together has been the most fitting tribute, so I wanted to share this with those of you who didn't know her:

This is a bit of a mish-mash of things I have been thinking about this week – a stream of consciousness really. In respect to Grandma’s preference for things to be carefully prepared, and not being a fan of huge surprises, for once I have written my whole speech in advance.

A word we have heard used this week in regard to Grandma is that she was a stoic. I think this is a huge compliment. The ancient Stoics are often misunderstood because the terms they used pertained to different concepts in the past than they do today. The word stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to pain, because Stoic ethics taught freedom from passion by following reason. But the Stoics did not seek to extinguish emotions, only to avoid emotional troubles by developing clear judgment and inner calm through diligent practice of logic, reflection, and concentration.

Grandpa mentioned to me that he didn’t think he had ever seen her cry. Certainly she never cried in public. In fact, he has reprimanded himself this week that she would tell him to “stop being a cry-baby”. I for one have tried to respect her wishes and think of her in the way she wanted – or maybe even planned meticulously – to be remembered.

She was a great one for literature (I remember being made by mum to read War and Peace aged 11 for my City scholarship exam, and grandma had just read Anna Karenina, so we were able to talk about Tolstoy’s style of writing as essentially a form of historical social and political reference, dressed as novel.

A phrase from Tolstoy springs to mind: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Grandma was acutely aware of what she could influence, and focused single-mindedly on it – she was not one for fripperies.

In digging out that quotation, I came across this from Pearl Buck: “You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.” I think that also sums Grandma up. She was not particularly enthusiastic about adopting new things – especially the Internet – and used to roll her eyes and ask what on earth she would need that for. She never took to flying all that much, and we shall politely say she was an extremely patient driver, with an acute understanding that 30mph was the maximum limit, despite the potential power of the car to do a bit more.

All this made me think about the dramatic use of the word “expired” in old literature for when someone died. Somehow this seemed very appropriate to Grandma. We all knew inside that she had been unwell for several months, but none of us were able to break down her stubborn defence of her health and find out how serious it really was. Once she felt unable to continue caring for everyone to her usual meticulous standards, I think she was ready to go.

Until then, she wanted to keep things on her own terms, and most importantly she saw herself as part of a team. For her, what mattered was the aggregate age score with Grandpa. She must have had some inkling that she could not go on in her weakened state, so she carefully laid all the groundwork for him to have the best network of support possible.

Then she was concerned for all of us to reach our own milestones – Aunt Yvonne’s 80th, Helen’s new flat (and becoming a Fast Streamer!), my birthday and brunch – and to see everyone together on happy occasions right until the last.

I must confess that my first reaction on hearing the news was one of anger at her for not taking better care of herself, but almost immediately that I started talking with other people in our family, I realised that her way was never to prioritise her own wellbeing over those around her. This is who she was.

I think very few people have meaningful personalities that everyone gets to know. We all put up a persona for the convenience of associating briefly with the vast majority of people in our lives. I often question whether we are innately anything except to a few who know us incredibly well.

For anyone else who knows us, we are defined by the nature of the relationships we have with other people. In this way, as was said on Sunday, Grandma was defined by the many warm relationships she had. Even those who knew her only slightly would be aware of the constant desire she had to care for others, giving hospitality, time and advice in bountiful quantities. What makes this a point of interest to me is that this really is who she was.

The grandchildren related to her despite the generation gap. This went beyond the standard grandparent to grandchild connection, though we certainly enjoyed getting endless sherbets and chocolate ├ęclairs from the sweet jar. She could outrun me well into her 60s, but only now do I realise that this was cause and effect…

She took a genuine interest not just in our activities, but really in how we developed as people. Who were we really? What were our individual philosophies, political and moral viewpoints and so on? In this way, we spent time with her as a friend and out of choice.

One really positive thing that has come out of this week has been to continue this relationship with Grandpa and Aunt Yvonne, who share many of these characteristics.

How do we cope then, with her passing? I think the answer comes from how she carried herself and what she would want us to do. We have all been so proud of Grandpa, who has been heroic in picking up the mantle of “family stoic” in her honour.

He announced earlier in the week that it was a “new epoch” – and indeed it is. When someone is taken away from us, they leave behind a series of broken connections. Even in these last few days, we have all taken great strength from how some of these loose ends have found each other.

It’s never going to replace Grandma, but it’s absolutely fitting that instead of crying and dwelling on her last few weeks when all was less than good, we are remembering those previous 80 years, largely of health and happiness, looking to the future and thinking about how we are going to apply the lessons she taught so ably.

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