The stamp of heredity

granny.JPG“When I was someone else, that I am not now …” this is worth investigating.

So said Ghetufool, commenting on one of my recent posts. I agreed the phrase is worth investigating, and it took me back through history, that fascinating subject, both the human and natural kinds, and especially the mysterious parts that we don’t know.

Sitting to write here while it’s still dark each morning, I’ve recently been seeing a wasp outside, banging against the study window. The other morning a queen managed to get in through a crack and circled round the desk lamp, annoying me. I guessed her intentions were not just to find warmth and light, but take up winter residence. Above this ceiling are the remains of several paper nests. Wasps invented paper from wood-pulp before humans ever thought of it. I left the room, planning murder. Arguably it was a just war, but then it might be genocide, because a queen carries in her abdomen the makings of next year’s brigade of armed sugar-warriors. Says Wikipedia:

After successfully mating, the male’s sperm cells are stored in a tightly packed ball inside the queen. The sperm cells are kept stored in a dormant state until they are needed the following spring. At a certain time of the year (often around autumn), the bulk of the wasp colony dies away, leaving only the young mated queens alive. During this time they leave the nest and find a suitable area to hibernate for the winter.

I returned to the room an hour later but she had gone. We suppose birds and insects simply fly as the fancy takes them, as we imagine we would, having the benefit of wings, but survival is their constant motive. Natural conservatives, they cling to territorial habits established generations previously.*

As I grow older, history grows longer and weighs more in my thoughts. Things are so well-ordered now, so different from my chaotic childhood, so simple, that I have no future plan, except to die gracefully. Allowing myself another 35 years, I’ll be 102, ready then (if not sooner) to take up a reckless lifestyle, and go out with a bang, rather than a long-drawn-out whimper.

I carry more than my own years. Like that importunate queen, gravid with the makings of next year’s family (perhaps she has crawled into some warm hiding-place to escape my waspicidal intent), I bear memories of those who influenced me, such as my schoolmasters. They taught me bits of the world’s history— medieval Europe’s, the British Empire’s. That queen carries the sperm of one summer’s lovers. I carry the assimilated attitudes of centuries. Such is the magic of books and contact with an older generation.

That is how I came to think about my grandmother, and spend an afternoon going through a suitcase of the photos she had preserved, one being on a glass plate in a little leather box with clasps, dated 1849, a mere 7 years after the invention of glass-plate photography by Janez Puhar. Naturally I looked for photos of myself, and there were a few, even from my first arrival in England from Australia, aged 4. I was jolly enough then, but rarely present in group or individual photos thereafter. In garden or beach parties (the times when someone would be most likely to produce a camera) I was either absent or unwilling. With a flush in my cheeks and an angry scowl, I made my anguish plain, and averted my gaze from the camera, in the habitual manner of my grandmother. How alienated I was from my own family! It wasn’t just teenage angst. A small child knows when he’s unwanted, even if he doesn’t know why.

I only knew one of my grandmothers. I don’t count the fake one, on whom I was foisted for a while at age five. My mother knew she wasn’t my real grandmother, but she didn’t, and as for me, I was a parcel to be passed around. That bedridden, imperious old woman, who spoke only Dutch, was married to a retired sea-captain with a vile temper. By the time I learned of my real father, in my late forties, his mother had already passed on, so I never met my real paternal grandmother, unless as a baby: which also doesn’t count. My eventual reunion with him occurred in Perth, where he still lived in the district where I was born. He told me he’d intended one day to visit England and look up his ancestral roots, professing an interest in genealogy: seemingly unaware of the irony.

He may be still alive but we’ve lost touch again. It’s his turn to find me. Perhaps I’ve inherited his unsentimentality.

I’ve been wanting to tell a story about my English grandmother, but it’s a scandalous tale: not of vice, but an excess of virtue. Looking at the photographs of her at various ages, I see she was born to be a martyr, bearing life with such stiff endurance that it broke down her health and engendered consequences through successive generations.

Perhaps it’s a tale I can never tell. This blog is not quite anonymous. I can hardly pass off a tale as fiction, when it is supported by photographic evidence. The important thing is that chains of consequence can be broken, and I’m the living proof.


* See Michael Peverett’s blog and my comment.

Postscript: alive & well in July 2017, aged 95. I have his eyes and ears:

larry92.jpg

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13 thoughts on “The stamp of heredity

  1. This is not just the time for mellow fruitfulness; it is the time for mellow thoughts and reminiscing, where you can.

    Personal roots are so entwined and very often impenetrable. I feel a bit of this is in what you say. Belonging is another story.

    Aren't old photos interesting, especially the beautiful old plate variety. I love the gentle sepia shade of genuine old pictures, not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with attachments, sentiment, or both.

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  2. Vincent, I enjoyed reading your essay and the photograph is wonderful. I have a few old photos such as this of my grandparents and great grandparents. All of their expressions are so somber.

    “How alienated I was from my own family! It wasn’t just teenage angst. A small child knows when he’s unwanted, even if he doesn’t know why.” This makes me feel sadness, but when you close with, “The important thing is that chains of consequence can be broken, and I’m the living proof,” I am left with hope—this statement is a good way to deal with certain life difficulties that are somewhat out of our hands.

    Your piece also reminds me of a section in a book that I have come back to, “Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death” by Irvin D. Yalom, M.D. I began it some months ago and put it aside because other books took my attention. Recently when I was in the library, I saw it staring at me because of the section I was in, and I checked it out again. Dr. Yalom speaks about “Rippling.” He describes it is as a way to deal with death anxiety and find meaning in life. He states, “Rippling refers to the fact that each of us creates—often without our conscious intent or knowledge—concentric circles of influence that may affect others for years, even for generations. That is, the effect we have on other people is in turn passed on to others, much as the ripples in a pond go on and on until they’re no longer visible but continuing at a nano level” (pg. 83). I thought of this when you discuss the memories and influences from your schoolmasters.

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  3. wonderful as usual, Vincent, leaves me with much to muse on.

    I'm a believer in the long reach of influence through the generations. I sometimes wish when people worry about their personal immortality and being remembered after they are dead that they would consider carefully the way they live.

    It is the patterns of our lives, our bravery and cowardice, our moral failures and our successes, our loving – and sadly, our hating – that is perpetuated into the future.

    As for the things that the world calls success and failure (money, status) this is quickly forgotten.

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  4. Ghetu thanks, yes there is some inheritance from that mysterious woman.

    ZACL, you make me wonder if the labyrinth may be impenetrable: to some, maybe. Not to all.

    Luciana, I was so glad to see the picture of you, born in the year of the dog, with a dog, playing with it and I think a little nervous too? Will there be more pictures?

    Rebb, thanks for this. I do recall the name Yalom. Wasn't he/isn't he an existential psychotherapist? I was training for that stuff once – the person-centered, Carl Rogers variety; but took an interest in the others too.

    This matter of death interests me. I lack the death anxiety and feel no need to find meaning in life at present. But to live is to be vulnerable.

    Hayden, I like what you say very much. One part of me wishes that people would consider carefully how they live, as you say. Another part has no such concern, for I don't feel the need to judge anyone or anything; just to do the necessary for survival, & do my duty to the world (no less and no more).

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  5. Vincent, this is a rare moment indeed. I agree completely. The whole judgement thing is really beside the point. Actions… the action of living a life… is the important bit.

    I like the way you present yourself: uncluttered by concern over others' opinions, yet kind and staying true to your core.

    This – in my opinion – is a critically valuable example for the young. Someone will /is/has noticed, and wondered, and accepted that you live differently, outside of the influence of judgement. Having observed, they will always know that it is possible, whether or not they have the courage/desire to live this way themselves. This is a kind of immortality.

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  6. Vincent, yes, that is the same Yalom. I first discovered him through his fiction years ago. I so love your statement, “But to live is to be vulnerable.” How true it is! A great reminder—thank you for that.

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  7. Vincent,

    The old photo is always a treat to see. Your grandmother looks like Queen Elizabeth when she was young. I enjoyed reading your post. I love the part about planning murder and so on. It made me think of seeing a British mystery drama. I was smiling as I read.

    There must be many British people with Australian connection. While I read, I felt I have read similar stories before. I think the British Empire left old baggage on the descendants, and with the blogging invention, more people are now able to tell their stories. I also have a story about my grandmother. That’s the reason I began writing about ten years ago.

    The other day, I was watching a program. It was about an English woman writer. She was reared on a small, I think, Caribbean island. She went to study in London. She wrote how she struggled in the English society. I forgot her name, but I remember her face in the photograph. Her literature came out of her great struggle. Like the photo of Lu Xun, her face speaks her stories.

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  8. Yes, Hayden, but you are making the assumption that I “live differently – outside the influence of judgement”. I did say it was “one part of me”. the theme of multiple personalities is taken up in my next.

    There is the immortality of “rippling”, no doubt, as Rebb says, and it's neutral as to the nature of the influences.

    Shakespeare makes Mark Anthony say in his famous speech over the body of Julius Caesar:

    The evil that men do lives after them
    The good is oft interred with their bones.

    Perhaps.

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