The Great-Greats

Naming things is an endlessly fascinating and complicated way of creating and better understanding our relationships with them. Different cultures have even devised quite distinct ways of classifying and identifying the kinships within them, to the extent that families and relations in the different cultures affect the very ways people interact and consider themselves connected, responsible for each other, and much more.Photo: Great Great Grandparents

One of the appealing (or appalling) quirks, depending upon one’s view, of the American traditions of familial identification and the names given them in English is the way we use the word Great to specify layers of distance from ourselves. This photo, for example, is of one of my sets of great- and/or great-great grandparents (my maternal grandfather’s forebears), if I am not mistaken, and there is much to pique my curiosity in this image.

First, of course, is the question of whether I have identified them correctly at all. But then, in what ways—besides the nominal—were they great? Clearly, being among my ancestors is an easy in to that category. [Ba-dum-tsssssssshhhhhh!]*

Seriously, though, what distinguished these people? Safe to assume, from what little I do know of my relatives in Norway, these two lived on a small farm, and they worked hard. I mean, incredibly hard, by my standards. I’m inclined, actually, to think that the gent is my great grandpa and the lady next to him is his mummified mum, but having seen many a portrait from that era whose subject I was shocked to discover was eons younger than I’d have imagined, I can’t be sure. If this is a couple, I am extra, extra glad I have such a lazy and comfortable life. I may be no spring chicken, but I like to think that people will be able to tell whether or not I’ve already died, and when it does occur, won’t be able to make work boots out of my hide without tanning it further.

This could be the great-grandfather who was a tinsmith. A pretty skilled one, at that. The hands I see here could easily be tough enough to have put metal in its place. As for the farming, what little I’ve gleaned [enough with the shtick! I’ll try to behave myself]* from the various family stories and photos indicates that my family were subsistence farmers, growing what produce would feed their own households or be swapped with neighbors for  further goods, and raising enough sheep and goats, chickens and cattle to keep them in meat, eggs, hides and bones as needed. Agrarian life, until more recent decades, was generally a far more solitary and jack of all trades kind of existence. My grandmothers, great and otherwise (and I can only assume all of the neighbor women of this ancestress’ approximate vintage) did such work as probably made them all look equally leathery.

I would like to think that the sober, if not condemnatory, expressions in the photo sprang from the typical problem of holding still for the interminable exposure time a photograph required in those days, not to mention doing so while squinting in the sunlight. But I also suspect that a combination of that hardscrabble life of theirs and the grimly perdition-obsessed brand of religion to which many of my relatives have subscribed means that these two generally took life mighty seriously as well. They probably didn’t see so much to joke about or room for fun and games in their daily lives.

What I can safely assume about my relatives still gives me some hope. Obviously, they knew enough about how to survive and yes, thankfully, to procreate, that I am here generations later to tell the tale. I consider my existence a fine thing. Although they weren’t either wealthy or showy, they are dressed in well made, tidily kept clothing and lo, my mustachioed male relative even sports a watch chain, so theirs was not, even from the perspective of my privileged and cushy life, a torturous life of pure privation. So I don’t feel enormous existential guilt for their suffering. But I’m not inclined that way like they might have been, anyhow.

My late Norwegian relatives lived and labored in a landscape and climate rather like where I grew up in the American northwest, so I know that even if their daily work was hard they did it surrounded by beauty and nurtured in a mostly benevolent natural environment. They raised children who were able to go out in turn into the wider world and make their ways, eventually finding own their paths, making their own livings, and raising their own families, and eventually crossing many mountains, borders, and seas. I think all of this a fine, if modest, sampler of human existence with [dang it, I just can’t help it!]* relatively little grand tragedy or overblown drama. Most of all, I am glad that the long-gone beings who posed for this rather inscrutable image contributed to the production of a line of pretty good folk, culminating in my immediate family. That’s greatness enough for me, and makes me very thankful indeed. Happy Thanksgiving, my friends.

The Strangest Kind of Strangers on a Train

The old tale of complete strangers meeting in transit, discovering they have identical problems, and “solving” the problems by trading crimes to eliminate the people they see as the root of their unhappiness, makes for a striking mystery drama, in fiction. Ask Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock fans! But I was reminded recently that we give too little credit to our commonalities as a positive solution to our problems, and end up missing crucial opportunities as a result.

The filmic version takes as its thesis that the two strangers who meet can find not other, or at least no better, solution to the problem of having bad relationships with inconveniently incompatible people than to murder them, and by ‘exchanging’ murders with each other they hope to escape detection by each having no apparent connection to, or a motive for killing, the other’s nemesis.

While this makes for startling and even compelling imagined mystery, it’s horrific if imagined in real terms. Yet we do similar things all the time in this world, don’t we? Because I tend to agree with a particular point of view in general, say, a specific philosophy or political party’s policies, or my country’s traditions, does that mean it’s wise or humane or practical or generous to follow along without question, no matter what my group, party or nation says and does? We mortals are remarkably good at noticing and magnifying our differences, as genuine and large as they may be. But we’re frighteningly weak, in opposing measure, when it comes to recognizing, focusing on, and building upon our true kinship. This, I believe, easily outweighs in both quantity and importance, our separating characteristics. Digital illustration from a photo: Opening Doors

The recent train outing in Sweden that reminded me so pointedly of this also confirmed my belief that it’s an area where youth is wiser than experience. In a railcar where a young father, not a local or a native speaker of the language, was keeping his fifteen-month-old daughter occupied and contented during the trip by helping her practice her tipsy walking, she made her way with his help to where another family, also foreign but not of the same culture as father and daughter, was sitting together. That group was of two adult sisters and their four or five school-age children. The toddler was naturally attracted to the friendly and spirited older children, and as soon as they saw her, they too were enchanted. What followed was perhaps twenty minutes of delighted interaction between them all, with occasional balance aid from Papa and photo-taking by the Mamas. And barely a word was spoken, much less understood by any of the participants, during the entire episode.

The greatest among the many beauties of this endearing one-act was that the conversation essentially began, continued and ended with the kids reaching toward one another with open hands, waving and gesturing and generally putting on an elaborate pantomime together, and above all, giggling and chortling with peals and squeals of ecstatic laughter.

Needless to say, all of us adults in the railcar grinned, giggled, chortled and otherwise became happy kids right along with them. Resistance was an impossibility and a pointless attempt, at that. And isn’t that an excellent lesson for all? Adults are too busy being territorial and fearful and downright feral to remember that the open hand of welcome and sharing is as quickly reciprocated as any gesture, and a smile of greeting and acceptance is contagious beyond any language, age, or cultural barriers. We can nurse our terrors of the unknown as supposed adults, or we can choose to laugh together like children.Digital illustration from a photo: As If in a Mirror

That which is Seen

graphite drawingThat which is seen by the untrained eye of the casual observer is an older man, an elderly man, perhaps a shell of his former self. Not someone with a lot of use and life adventure left in him. Handsome, perhaps, in his latter years, with this silver hair and these pale clear eyes, with his faintly stooping posture before a window where no single thing that’s new is seen; elegant in his quiet way, and maybe wise. But not more.

What cannot be seen is the forty-two years he spent working for the postal service, learning the business from the bottom up and eventually teaching not just the next generation that would follow him but the next after that as well. There is no way to know at merely a glance that he tended a beautiful garden on Sunday afternoons where he grew too many vegetables for his own table so he shared the rest around the neighborhood. Invisible, too, is the love he keeps alive for his long-dead wife of thirty years, except for the small bouquet of flowers he picks from that garden of his and gives to their son and his wife every Monday because they were her favorite blooms. Yes, the flowers and the kids.

In the plain little vase where those flowers live for the week, there is room for all that can’t be seen in one quick look at the profile of a man who sits and meditates beside a window. Only by taking the time to appreciate the fulness of that humble bunch of flowers and all that they have to tell can anyone really know what to see when looking toward that window’s light. It takes a certain clarity to see what’s right in front of you.graphite drawing