“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: