Back in late 2012, Lisa reviewed The Summer of the Great-Grandmother by Madeleine L’Engle. Familiar with L’Engle’s children’s books, I had not known until then she had written any non-fiction, never mind four volumes of very personal “Crosswicks Journals”, focusing on her own life. I almost immediately read and adored Two-Part Invention, the fourth Crosswicks book, but The Summer of the Great-Grandmother remained on my To-Be-Read list. Until now.
Published in 1974 (14 years before Two-Part Invention), The Summer of the Great-Grandmother is L’Engle’s record of the last summer of her mother’s life, spent at Crosswicks, L’Engle’s Connecticut home. L’Engle’s mother is ninety and suffering from dementia. Though a doctor friend assures L’Engle at the beginning of the summer that her mother is not likely to die soon (not, in the circumstances, a particularly comforting message), she only lasts a few months. It is a rapid and far from graceful decline but, perhaps thankfully, one that she is not entirely present for. L’Engle, spending a summer with four generations of family under one roof (not to mention the young friends brought in to help care for her mother), is caught between moments of delight – a family wedding, the joy of having her granddaughters with her for the summer – and the exhausting duty of watching the sharp, engaging mother she knows fade away.
This is not a distressing book. Not in the way Two-Part Invention was, certainly. In that book, L’Engle struggles to make sense of her husband’s cancer diagnosis and – within a few months – his death. But the death of a parent, particularly one in her nineties, is the most natural thing on earth. That doesn’t make it cheerful, exactly, but L’Engle spends most of the book thinking about her mother’s life and the family members who came before, remembering the stories she was told as a child that her mother, robbed of her memory, can no longer tell. Memories are important, something that is shown all the more clearly by the loss of them. This book is L’Engle’s way of ensuring that her mother is not forgotten, even if L’Engle herself should one day start to forget:
How many people have been born, lived rich, loving lives, laughed and wept, been part of creation, and are now forgotten, unremembered by anybody walking the earth today?
And yet it is not a biography – it cannot be. L’Engle, whose memory of her mother is “the fullest memory of anybody living”, knows that even she only has a partial portrait of the woman who her mother is and was:
I am trying to take a new look at my mother’s life and world, and I find that I can do this only subjectively. I can look objectively at Mother’s life only during the years before I was born, before my own remembering begins, when I did not know her; and even they my objectivity is slanted by selectivity, my own, hers, and that of friends and relatives who told me stories which for some reason Mother had omitted from her repertoire…
But there attempts at objectivity fall apart, and biology makes me subjective, and this is the other strand of the intertwined helix, my very subjective response to this woman who is, for me, always and irrevocably, first, Mother; and second, her own Madeleine.
How long does family memory last? For how long will our descendents remember us? Two generations, certainly. But three, four? By the fifth, what will your great-great-great-grandchildren know about you, other than that you must have existed? Will they even know your name? They almost certainly won’t know anything of the family you came from, all the family stories you heard growing up, the legend of uncle so-and-so, the scandal of great-aunt whatshername. That small fraction of their lives that we know will be forgotten, just as the facts of our own lives will be forgotten. It is natural – our memories are not that long and we, already bent under the weight of expectation loaded on us by living (or still remembered) relatives, certainly don’t need to feel that umpteen generations of ancestors are judging us as well. But we would not be human if we did not, even while embracing logic, long to be remembered, to leave our lasting mark on the world.
That is what this book is: a record of L’Engle’s mother, a determined effort to ensure her life will be remembered, as well as the lives of her parents and grandparents. And what lives they were. Full of breathless brushes with danger, moments of tragedy, and far too many women named Madeleine, L’Engle’s family tree is full of fascinating characters. In fact, the more distant ancestors – with their encounters with a pirate and a empress , not to mention flights from flaming cities – rather take over the book, edging out L’Engle’s mother much of the time. And that is a pity because she sounds like a fascinating woman who, particularly in early years of her marriage, lived an excitingly cosmopolitan life. It was an extraordinarily well-lived life and this book is a beautiful, loving testament to it.