May 2017 – Three Epiphanies and a Comment

My maternal grandmother died towards the end of 1974. Almost a year before she had bought my mother a potted plant as a birthday present, which was still thriving after her death. However, it was left in the house without much water, and slowly faded, so that some time later it was dead. I recall feeling that it was dying and thinking, all too vaguely, that something could be done about it. I did not voice this view, and later the plant and its pot had disappeared. Not for the first time, it felt that something more of my grandmother had disappeared with the death of this plant. It was only much later, sadly, that I felt that greater attention should be paid to it.

My great-uncle Leslie, my father’s uncle, had died in the same year; as it turned out, one in a long string of losses from the same generation. His widow was, to be frank, a difficult person, a US citizen, with odd and unacceptable prejudices, and an increasingly demanding manner. She constantly phoned my mother and expected her to jump to, seemingly to provide her with company; as my mother was none too well at the time, this was doubly unwelcome. My other grandmother openly disliked her, and grew angry and dismissive after she herself was widowed in 1980. When I was told that my great-aunt had died suddenly, I was no more than conventionally sorry; I was at work at the time, shrugged it off and carried on working. Even when I learned that she had left me her television and radio in her Will, I merely noted it. I am not too self-critical over this; many bereavements have only a brief and minor impact, whilst others feel catastrophic.

In my US great-aunt’s case, it was the funeral, which I attended mainly out of duty, that involved a very different impact. A vicar officiated, and said, in a very gentle but matter-of-fact manner, that we should think about the life that had ended and what that meant. There was no piety in his tone, and we were not affiliated to his religion, but my mother and I both reacted to this simple injunction, with a major upsurge of sadness. It was so obvious that when we got outside the crematorium chapel, an otherwise unsympathetic female attender said to us, kindly “I think we should get out of this place”. My mother said afterwards that what had occurred to her was that, in the period before my uncle’s death, my aunt had been good company, and often shared her amusement and bemusement at family occasions with Mum; in a way, both had felt like outsiders. Sadly, her later conduct, probably the consequence of undiagnosed dementia, had led me to see my aunt as simply a difficult figure, when, years before, she had been pleasant and welcoming. The vicar’s words had reminded us of that, but also of the enormity of loss contrasted with the triviality of its treatment.

In the early 1980s my work included the surveying of houses for mortgage purposes. This was often routine and systematic work, but in a survey of one house that I visited in Birkenhead – in a main road location that I often drive past – I glimpsed something else. The house was occupied by an older lady who showed me where various parts of the house were, and left me to it. Until, before I went upstairs, she came out to speak, clearly telling me a story that had been bottled up for some time. Her husband had died some months before from a heart attack, and she pointed to a ceiling that he had decorated some time before. She had watched how tired he was when doing this, and had told him that this task had really taken it out of him. At which memory, she suddenly burst out that she had known there was something wrong, that people had told her she would ”get over it” but she clearly wasn’t, that people had tried to comfort her by saying he hadn’t suffered (and other items in a full helping of unhelpful remarks to the bereaved); that she did not want to move house, and that she hoped she herself would die. I simply said how sorry I was, and that it must be dreadful (it would be, as I found for myself perhaps 20 years later), and she said that she hoped that I would go past soon and see a hearse leaving the house, and if so that would mean she was at peace. That must be over 30 years ago, but I cannot go past that house (I did so yesterday), or think of it, without wondering whether she did, indeed, find that peace.

All three epiphanies involved the loss of human life, the attendant reminders, its unanticipated reactions, its ambivalences and mild disruption to continuities. For me, the long reach of distant memory seems to encounter two features: the seeking and sealing of happy experiences (something I have yet to write about much), and a deep sense of loss, but loss that is stabilised. That stabilisation, and its naming and emphasis, enables a sense of resolution, but an uneasy one.