Every morning I spend a little time reading before I begin the real work of the day, which is writing. I choose the books I read in this time slot for inspirational value, either spiritual or psychological or artistic. This morning I finished The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, by Madeleine L’Engle, which is the second of the “Crosswicks Journal” series, was chosen for a mixture of the three, and it does not disappoint.
L’Engle is best known for her marvelous children’s books (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, etc.), but these memoirs are beautifully written and thought-provoking. Here, she writes about the summer during which her mother did the hard work (for all concerned) of dying, at the family vacation home of Crosswicks, a Connecticut farmhouse.
Because my own mother, 92 years old at the time of this writing, is involved in her own such struggle and has been for the past two years, I read this with much interest, looking for guidance on how to cope with my own conflicted feelings. While I perhaps did not exactly find guidance in a practical sense – my mother is in a nursing home in another country, while L’Engle was able to provide round-the-clock care for her mother in a family setting – I did find I was not alone in the feelings I have, of (to name a few) despair, shame, frustration, grief, resentment and pity.
One of the great gifts of readings is to find one is not alone during difficult times.
And because L’Engle always found, as I do, that her work as a writer was inextricably linked to her life, there is much wisdom about writing. For example, she talks (p. 140-141) about early stories she wrote which revealed more about the truth of her parents’ lives together than she intended:
All I knew was that I thought they were good stories, and I showed them to Mother for appreciation.
I was appalled when she cried. My reserved mother seldom permitted herself the indulgence of showing emotion, and I had made her cry. I had no idea how close the stories had hit home. I did not know that in the stories I knew more than I knew.
She knew more than she knew. If find this wonderful and so true. Often, I discover what’s going on in my mind, and in my perception of the world, only through reading over what I have earlier written.
And perhaps I should be grateful my mother refused to read anything I’ve written. Snort.
But beyond the identification, both as the daughter of a disappearing-mother and as a writer, I was also fascinated, and found solace in, her discussions of ousia – the essence of being, the true substance of a person or thing. When her mother, in the throes of dementia, behaves hurtfully and out of character she says:
Last night she started to throw a fork at Bion; fortunately her hand picked up her napkin instead. She makes wild accusations. “How can anybody be so cruel to anybody? My own daughter, how can anybody be so cruel?”
I am foolish enough to be hurt, even though I know that the ousia of my mother could never say such a thing, that she has always loved me and always will. . . she is no longer able to govern what is happening in her brain. There are only the rarest, briefest flashes of a person in this huddled, frightened, frightening, ancient woman.
My mother has suffered from mental illness her whole life (and has come at me more than once with a variety of cutlery), and now suffers even more from vascular dementia. The idea of ousia, an irreducible essence of innocence and love that exists untouched by either disease, is a great comfort and allows me to see the hand of The Ineffable (which is what I choose to call whatever the force in the universe greater than little old me) where from time to time I see only cruelty and a terrible grasping selfishness – in myself as well as my mother.
So, here’s to early morning reading and the comfort of friends we find between the pages of good books.