The day my Grandmother turned 75, she looked at me and said: “I’m 75 years old and I don’t know what I’ve done with my life.” I was 27 and her words hit the center of my soul like boulders rolling downhill. She was shaking her head and looking mournfully down at her now gnarled and spotted hands and at their long, curving fingernails that she always painted bright red. I gave her a hug, kissed her wrinkled drooping cheek, wished her a happy birthday and decided right then and there that I had to live a conscious life. It didn’t matter what the hell I did, but I wanted to do it consciously and arrive at 75 or more fully in possession of a life lived. I definitely wanted to know where my life had gone –when it had- before it was over.
I was lucky. Along with my Grandmother’s unintended warning, I had a good role model: my Father. My Father was always doing something. Not the kind of “doing” that is obsessive and like running away from one’s self, but the creative kind, consciously creative. It didn’t matter if his ‘doing’ was listening to an opera on Sunday afternoon and crying through the tragic arias, or bird watching and jotting down the species he identified with a star next to the new ones (his life’s bird list added up to over 1000 species by the time he died; I counted them before committing the notebook to the flames), or creating new words for sailing terms in Spanish for which there was no translation (another piece of work that ended up in the fire after I could find no one interested in it), or translating Blake’s Birds of Mexico into Spanish only to be beaten to the draw by a translation of Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Mexican Birds which came off the press way before my Father finished. Sometimes he would spend hours reloading shotgun shells simply because he loved doing it even though he could have bought new ones just as easily, or struggling with the small details on uncountable water-color paintings of birds that filled so many hours during his last years and ended up decorating several bathrooms and hallways in his children’s houses. My Father even did the company accounts by hand long after they had acquired a large computer and his work was no longer required. In all of these activities he was present, meticulous and happy in the chore. He enjoyed being creative and productive in and for himself. There was a beauty in him as he sat at his desk producing things that no one else needed just for the joy of it. His doing had no other purpose than that it entertained him. There was nothing there that was trying to get something, or be someone or go somewhere other then what, who and where he was at that moment. It was a form of joyous ‘being through doing’ just because… Perhaps observing that was my first spiritual experience.
Today I look at my Grandmother’s life projected against my Father’s and thank all the spirits of the Beyond that I had him as a teacher. And I adored my Grandmother perhaps even more, and definitely earlier than I adored my Father. I always said she was my Second Mother (while mentally thinking she was more like the first, seeing as my Mother was usually busy playing golf, having a social life or travelling with my Father, in other words, being totally herself, my second spiritual lesson which I was a long time in learning).
My Grandmother’s mother lived with her and during the years that I spent so much time at her house, a large part of it was in the company of my Great Grandmother. I called my Great Grandmother “Gargie” (her real name was Adele), my Grandmother “Ie” (Helen to her friends) and my Grandfather “Arthur” which was his name (except in the locker room of the Westchester Country Club where he was known as “Cookie” for his last name, Cook). As my Mother was Mommy and my Father was Daddy, calling my grandparents and great grandparent by their names or nicknames made me feel closer to them than I did sometimes to my actual parents. Among other things, I was the first and –probably therefore- the favorite grandchild. At any rate, my relationship to my Grandmother was thick, sticky, loving and spoiling. She treated me more like an adult than any other adult in my life, and I responded by making her my best friend.
When I was nine, my parents decided to move to Mexico and, obviously, to take me with them. My Grandmother lived in Greenwich, Connecticut so our intimate and frequent visits came to an abrupt end. Many years later I would hear my Father say that this move was made, in part, to distance my Mother from her own mother’s domination and get me out from under her ‘influence’ that inflated my ego to the extent that I was becoming rebellious and “fresh” when corrected, answering him back and waving my Grandmother’s opinion in his face as proof of his mistaken education. My relationship with my Grandmother had to be continued by letter, thus giving me my first experience of joy with the written word. We became passionate correspondents back in the days when letter-writing was still considered an art form and answers were received sometimes weeks after the original had been sent and required a leap of memory to connect certain speeches to their object of reference. My Grandmother was the first person to ever say to me that I should become a writer not –I dare say- because I did it especially well, but rather because I seemed to have an opinion on just about everything..
When she was 67, Arthur died suddenly one morning of a heart attack. My Grandmother was in the kitchen making coffee when she heard a loud thump from the bedroom. She found him dead on the floor. My grandparents had fought all their married life, to the extent that we all believed she would be glad to see him go. Yet, she never got over his death and repeatedly said that it was being held in somebody’s arms that she missed the most, even though it had been years since they had slept in the same bed. However, she insisted on living alone, changing apartments whenever she found one she thought she’d be happier in, and trying to fill her widowhood with friends and card games. We continued writing, and often she would complain about her loneliness without trying to find a solution. It was common knowledge in the family that she had sworn never to live with her daughter.
“My Mother lived with me for 30 years and during all that time I had to put up with the fighting that went on between Arthur and her,” she said, “and I never want to be that kind of burden on my daughter. I have my savings; I’ll live alone.”
However, when she was nearing 74, she suddenly thought she had found a way to solve her problem without giving in to the temptation to live with her daughter. She would live with me, her granddaughter.
I had been married for a few years and had a son aged two. We lived in a small apartment in a relatively nice section of Mexico City. When my Grandmother contacted me and said she wanted to buy us a house and come and live with us, it sounded like a dream come true: space for me to have my own room to write in, and a garden for my little boy. I paid no attention when my Mother said I might be very sorry, that her Mother was not an easy person to live with. As far as I was concerned, in their relationship my Mother had to be the problem because I had never had a nasty with my Grandmother.
My husband also was pleased. Even though our financial situation was not too difficult considering we were a young couple on the way up, the possibility of owning a house of our own was so far in the future it was out of sight, so my Grandmother’s generous offer was immediately accepted. I flew to New York, helped her pack up all her stuff and began our long drive to Mexico City. The plan was to make the trip in more or less 5 days. We would pass through New York State, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee (Nashville with memories of Elvis Presley and my teen years), through the corner of Georgia, and across Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas before crossing the border into Mexico and driving through Monterrey, then a town called Tamasunchale (which I had originally believed to be Thomas and Charlie when at the age of 9 my Father had driven us to Mexico City) and finally straight down to Mexico City.
We were driving… rather, I was driving my Grandmother’s year old 1965
4-door blue Chevy and apart from one rather disturbing incident (my Grandmother asked to drive after lunch in Maryland and almost ran into a truck because she could barely see over the steering wheel) the trip had been lazy. It was when we hit Texas that things started to move and I began learning things about my grandmother that I had never suspected. The highway we had to take had 6 lanes (on either side if I remember correctly) and was unimaginably straight and long. Besides that, there was nothing to see for miles but flat country, desert, not a rock, or a hill, or a tree: nothing. That stretch in the highway was known for the most accidents in the whole of the State because drivers tended to fall asleep without realizing they had. After an hour driving I began to understand why. Fortunately, distraction arrived. A red Ford Mustang caught up and passed me. Then, strangely, the driver (a young man) slowed down. I speeded up a bit and passed him. Immediately he stepped on it and passed me again, and then slowed down. I passed him and he repeated his trick. I understood. We were to play. For the next two hours we played with one another. It kept me awake and on my toes: we were flirting, a blue car and a red car, young man and young woman, in the middle of no man’s land. At the end of that unbelievably long stretch, I finally pulled into a gasoline station to load up and the red Mustang pulled in behind. My Grandmother grabbed my hand.
“He looks like a nice young man. Take off your ring so he doesn’t know you’re married, we’ll invite him to dinner.” I couldn’t believe my ears. My Grandmother was asking me, a married woman, to flirt and God knows what else with a stranger. I remember looking at her out of the side of my eye and shaking my head. I walked over to the Mustang and the young man got out.
“Thank you” he said, “I was falling asleep. You probably saved my life.”
“And you mine” I replied. “My Grandmother wants to invite you to have supper with us.”
“That is very kind of you, but I have to report to Fort _____. I’ll be shipping out to Vietnam in a few days.” I remember feeling my heart contract.
“I’m sorry” I said. He shrugged and held out his hand. We shook hands and it was over. My car was loaded up with gas and I climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off, ignoring the protestations of my Grandmother who wanted me to insist on his coming to dinner. Now that I am close to my Grandmother’s age then, I begin to understand her fascination with that young man. I too begin love to have them close, I can even flirt with them with no ulterior intention. I fall platonically in love with all of them and it is so absolutely harmless and sweet. But then I was so young and naïve and ignorant of the ways of the world. Today I wonder if that young man with whom I flirted on a Texas highway way back when, ever came home, and if he did, if ever again he was innocent enough to play with a young woman in a car.
Now that is called, “going off on a tangent”, did you notice? Aren’t tangents fun? That is what life does. It goes off on a million tangents and then we have no idea why we can’t remember what we have done with our lives. It’s no wonder! We remember a movie, we remember a book, we remember a story because there is a narrative line. But with life, there are only narrative “by-lines”, everything shooting off in all directions. Was I going to tell you about my grandmother, or about living a conscious life? How did I end up in a gasoline station in Texas? Wouldn’t it have been more important to report how she bought us the house, ended up fighting with my husband and selling the house again so we were back where be had begun only more economically stressed (now that is a proper way of saying “poor”, politically correct, no doubt).
There, you see: tangents. And where did I leave my Father. Ah yes, sitting at his work table loading shotgun shells. No wonder one can’t remember correctly and it looks like we have no idea what we have done, where we have been or who we have seen. Life, it seems, is like a very intricate tree, full of roots, millions of roots, and branches, branches galore! And leaves, billions of leaves and each season different, and each growth ring in the trunk fuller and more complicated… Life. There it is: what a tangle. More than a tree, underbrush, thick, impassable underbrush where one can only get lost. Which path to follow? The one I lived with Grandmother? Greatgrandmother? Father? Mother?
So where were we? A conscious life, a life lived consciously with the purpose of knowing where it went to, when it has gone. That was my project at the age of twenty-something. Now, some forty years later, I could fill volumes because I am beginning to know that if life out there goes off on thousands of tangents at each step (try Marcel Proust), the much more important and real life in here is simply indescribable (try James Joyce). For the moment, end of tangents until the next.