I was over forty when my grandmother said, “You didn’t have an easy childhood.”

20150620_154629It was the first time she’d admitted it. She was edging around the perimeter of what was unspoken between us for nearly twenty years. Her daughter. My mother.

It could be that, at her age, she was facing her  the guilt of her own complicity. It could be that, at my age, she figured I would have experienced enough complexity in life, and could understand that love almost always entails a choice between two kinds of pain.

Maybe she said it because it was finally safe to do so; finally safe to believe I wouldn’t use her compassion to prop up my self-esteem, label myself a victim, and cultivate my own warm, little martyrdom.

Maybe her coldness, and her trivialising all those years were based on a kind of hard wisdom. A shove towards something better. I can’t know.

It still makes me happy that she said that. She acknowledged what we had in common, a childhood that “wasn’t easy”, and a necessary strength.

“You sound like you’re just next door. I wish you where here,” she’d say often, and then she’d always follow up with, “No. I don’t really. You’re better off where you are.”

A few years later, she no longer recognised my voice on the phone. I lost her before the rest of her family lost her. I learned of her death via Facebook.

I didn’t go to her funeral. She wouldn’t have liked that: “You’re better off where you are.” Pain is unavoidable, but there is no reason to court it. My grandmother was a practical woman.

“Honey, you know I love you, but, most of the time, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

We had little, and everything, in common.

I miss her. Though I will never be certain of how well I knew her. There were stories in those later years: told in fragments, like a surreal soap opera, an episode a week, two hours each Sunday. She told me about her husbands, about being a single mother of four in the 40s, about her complex relationship with her sister, and how she never forgave her mother.

She had stories about my mother and my father. About what came before what was never spoken, the big, black swath in my life that matched the big, black swath in hers. She never picked at wounds, but seemed to have found a way to walk away from them. Something I’m not always willing to do, to leave parts of myself behind like that. Lies of omission.

There were barriers. I don’t recall her ever hugging me when I was in pain. Our most intimate moments were over the phone once I was an adult and living overseas. Once I was a mother, myself. But what made it through the barriers was real. That’s what matters: taking what you get, and being grateful.

I have yet to write her eulogy. My story is too entwined with hers still: reflections through generations, like repeating images in facing mirrors. But now there’s empty space. It’s a good thing. A painfully good thing, like love always is.

Last night I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s Ted talk about forging identity. Which is about taking hold of the narrative and creating a point of view. And this morning, on the train, I read an article in Aeon by a professor who disputes the idea that he is a story.

Strawson writes: “Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Life never does that. We do. If you have ever held a grudge (an awfully universal human thing to do, I would think), you are clinging to a story, not a sequence of events.

Events happen. [His]Stories are remembered and often told.

Dr. Strawson is a philosophy professor. I’m not. But when he writes:

I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I’ve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I’m on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.

I can’t help but wonder if he leaves the possibility open that the knowledge he has of his own personal history, that his history perhaps* being rather unexceptional/not in conflict with, while embedded within, the larger cultural history, means that he is unaware of how significant his “autobiographical narrative” is or might be under other circumstances, circumstances under which the disparity between the autobiographical narrative and the culture’s larger narrative bring the former into view.

I’m not sure why he put the term “autobiographical narrative” in quotes, but I do because I think it is just jargon for our sense of identity. Which can be nothing but a history. A story.

Stories are not necessarily Scribe’s well-made plays. In fact, the best ones never are.

Nor are we likely to engage or encompass ourselves in a single story. I am one story with my children. One with my students. One with my lover. I can selectively block details of my personality when responding to situations that are embedded within larger stories. Sometimes my stories change.

Sometimes they involve me changing dramatically: a turning point. I choose to acknowledge and aspect of myself in the story and attempt to change it–I don’t attempt to alter the facts. I find a balm for guilt in the new story of redemption, or growth. And life goes on.

It doesn’t make me insane. It doesn’t even disturb my sense of identity. The very fractured nature of my daily existence is part of my personal narrative. I’m comfortable with that. Strawson repeats Henry James’ description of life as a “great shambles”. That is a story. And at junctures, my story.

Strawson’s article describes in praxis his own story by describing what it is not.

If you were to wake tomorrow in a hospital bed and no one claimed you. You would have to begin to forge an identity. To get to know yourself. And, as much as we want to live in the present, we only know how we fit into the larger story when looking at the past. Even if the past is nothing but a single day, or a matter of a split second and a recollection: “I don’t like peas.”

I am sure if someone disputes Strawson’s standing as a philosophy professor he has a history to bring out as an “official record”. Those are the facts. His narrative, my narrative, each of his students’ narratives–that of his mother–will differ just slightly.

And sometimes slightly is just enough to cause trouble.

Strawson writes: “Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’ ”

This, too, is a story.

Not mine.


*I say perhaps because I do not presume to know anything at all about Dr. Strawson’s life, nor do I intend to imply anything. But since he wrote his critique based on personal experience and literary quotes, so will I now: I have found that when stories are told – when people talk about how their experience on a bus journey was affected by a talk they were having, it usually, if significant, reaches back to other talks, connects to other experiences that shaped that person’s personal history. It gave it a significant meaning. Or, “narrative”. This is in no way an attack on his perspective. Just the questions that came to my mind based on general experience, not specific philosophical study. 

(Again, check out Solomon’s Ted talk! That’s my literary quote.)