Friday, November 28, 2008
On the occasion of Madeleine's 90th Birthday
It is a beautiful October day in Northwestern Connecticut, the leaves delicious in their gold and red grandeur, the kind of day my grandmother, Madeleine L’Engle would have gloried in: a writer’s kind of day, filled with poetry and metaphor, the beauty of dying trees waiting to bloom again. Childishly, I wish that she would bloom again. She died on September 6th, 2007, and would have been ninety today, November 29th.
“Gran loved this,” I force myself to say, surveying the stunning vista of Mohawk Mountain in the distance as my sister Charlotte stands with me on the porch of the Cottage across the street from Crosswicks, a staging ground for three households worth of memories. We are staying at Crosswicks itself, the 1760s farmhouse that my grandparents bought in 1945, where our mother, Josephine, now lives, after having dealt with a grueling renovation for the past three years. Gran would be thrilled that her wishes of restoration and renewal have come to fruition. She had wanted Crosswicks, a place of so much history, to be cherished, to be a very real symbol of continuity and family gatherings.
Yet we stand there, bracing ourselves for another round of organizing both the detritus and treasures of her life. The Cottage holds the strings and sealing wax not only from its own life, but from Gran’s apartment in New York City, and Crosswicks, where everything had to be moved out to restore the house from the ground up.
Crosswicks is not only where our mother and her siblings grew up during the 1950s after my grandfather quit New York City theatre to run a country store; not only where my grandmother disappeared to her “ivory tower” above the garage to write, and suffered a decade of rejections before finding success with A Wrinkle in Time in 1962; it is the place where my grandmother matured as a writer, where she explored and discovered her voice, where we believed she based many of her books. The home is itself a symbol of her expansive mind, a sprawling space with a ping-pong table to exorcise Gran’s fierce competitiveness, and the friendly but naughty ghosts Abigail and Ebenezer, blamed whenever Gran misplaced her keys or eyeglasses! Charlotte and I always imagined that Crosswicks itself belonged in the realm of literature: that it is just as much the setting for Meet the Austins, A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, as it is in her non- fiction. In the attic is Meg Murry’s brass bed and in the backyard is the twins’ vegetable garden, the stone wall, the brook, and last but not least, the star watching rock.
The entire grounds are still alive with her essence, but I am having trouble experiencing it; I only see how much more work there is to do. So it is with trepidation that we open the sliding doors to her grand bedroom at the cottage. Memories of my grandparents, Madeleine and Hugh Franklin, Gran and Gum, are dancing in the dust. Gum was so named because I, as the first grandchild, couldn’t pronounce the “Grumpy Old Grandpa” he wished to be called when I was two. Such was his odd sense of humor, an unusually grounded actor who was the counterpoint to Gran’s effervescence. The man who quietly whistled under his breath, mowed the lawn and did crossword puzzles won over the heart of the woman who played piano and sang at the top of her lungs, carried a bawdy sense of humor, talked to God and wore colorful clothing and wild jewelry. It always fascinated me how they were mirror opposites: Gum was as extroverted in his art as an actor as she was introverted in her art as a writer, and in order to serve that art, Gran was just as extroverted in her life as he was introverted.
Almost in homage to their spirits, the room has a cathedral-like ceiling, and two walls of windows looking out onto the Litchfield Hills. Charlotte and I are speechless again, daunted by the drudgery in front of us, daunted by our yearning to channel all that Gran had taught us about creating cosmos out of chaos. For her that task had been telling stories. But what is it for us? And how can we do it with these boxes in our way?
Charlotte has been the ferocious fire, the one who demands that we work, who tirelessly sees the scope of all that has to be done. I have been the air, feeding her flames. Neither of us can do this alone, and it has been an uphill battle.
The last time we made our Connecticut pilgrimage, we had tackled a heap of plastic gloves and adult diapers: unhappy memories of her descent. We had already taken several trips to both the dump and to Goodwill, and we’d had a tag sale. Yet so much more remained.
“It looks as if we haven’t done anything at all,” Charlotte almost whispers. “It’s too much.” It is an awful, disorganized mess, and it is all we can do not to shrug our shoulders and walk away, this time for good. Hire somebody else to deal with it. Charlotte’s flame was bright this morning after several cups of coffee, but now her fire has turned to embers, and she needs my air to get her started again. But where is my air, my hope?
My despondency makes me mourn Gran’s vision of me as a little girl, full of possibility. I am yearning for the good memories of my salty grandmother who taught me as a child to believe in the endless possibilities of a life lived with imagination and creativity, who when I was a teenager identified with my adolescent depression and rages and helped me to feel less alone by telling me stories of what it is to be human, about the interconnectedness of life, and that there is no such thing as terminal uniqueness.
Where is the adult I thought I had become, the daughter and granddaughter able to process the past instead of being stuck in it, the writer able to move the story forward?
Gran’s philosophy was filled with awe at both the radiance and the shadowy smudges of life, and I am almost ashamed at my comparative lack of faith. As children, Charlotte and I thought she was magic, able to see the world through our eyes, where others couldn’t. Every year she would take us to see The Nutcracker and was as giddy with excitement as we were. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was enchanting with Gran as our guide. At tea parties, she would inhabit the tooth fairy, Peter Pan, King Arthur and Guinevere, an equal partner in our games. Is there any of that magic left in this dusty room?
Snap out of it Léna! I have to find my air, the whirling dervish deep down in me, or we have to leave. I take a deep breath and steer Charlotte towards the desk, where books have long ago been cleared off shelves and boxed in the basement for a reckoning at a later date, but her desk and windowsills remained full of knickknacks that hadn’t been sorted through. I catch sight of one of the old Santa Claus mugs that we used as children, when Gran would make us minty hot cocoa, and we all would escape to her room with her antique four poster bed, snuggle under the covers and read Shakespeare out loud, giggling at Gran’s rendition of Malvolio in Twelfth Night, my interpretation of Viola, and Charlotte’s Olivia.
We immediately see several things that our daughters would covet, and we look out the window at them playing on the deck. They had already absconded with pieces of costume jewelry and a tea set from the leftovers of the recent tag sale. Both girls are our grandmother’s namesakes. Charlotte’s daughter, almost eight, is Madeleine L’Engle Voiklis, nicknamed Magda. My daughter’s name is Scarlett L’Engle Roy, and at three and a half bears an elfin face reminiscent of her great-grandmother’s. They are making up stories, enhancing the present with things from the past.
We look at our daughters playing with Gran’s old “junk”, things that we had recently tried to give away, and the dawn of a new understanding begins to rise. With renewed energy, we begin making piles for the kids, for charity, for garbage. We use “the girls” as an excuse to keep things that on our more ruthless days we might just throw out or give away. Watching the girls play outside as we work keeps our hearts in check. We keep her old typewriters even though nobody will use them; we keep the set of sun and moon glasses, split between us; we keep some, but not all, of Gran’s giraffe and unicorn figurines. These were emblems of her own mythology: she had been compared to a giraffe once because of her height and long neck, a description that glued to her over the years. The unicorn represented the purity and magic of creativity: an obvious totem for her. We keep several Buddhas, along with crosses and icons of Christian saints. Having a Buddha on her desk was a reminder to Gran that she was a writer for all people, not just Christians, a personal symbol for her iconoclasm.
I am hauling a box of stemware over to the rest of the china when I hear my sister sigh.
“What is it?” I ask. She is staring at a watch and tearing up.
“She loved this watch. It was an anniversary present from Gum.” Gum had given it to her as an anniversary present and Gran had cherished it, especially after he died in September of 1986. It was a symbol of their life together, of time spent, not wasted, another symbol of continuity. I rub Charlotte’s back a little, and she sags. “I feel so attached to this watch.”
“Well why don’t you keep it then?”
“Actually, Magda’s been asking for a watch. Is that okay? Would you mind?” She is so vulnerable in that moment, my strong, beautiful sister.
“Of course! Magda should have it.” Am I being magnanimous? Not really. I have been and will be moved by other things.
“Mom should give it to her.” Charlotte says, after a moment. Yes, mom should. The kids are as blessed to have their grandmother, nicknamed Jamma, as we were to have Gran, as our Jamma was to have our great-grandmother, Gracchi who adored her in turn. Gran gave us a sense of security, fun, and acceptance in the world that only a grandmother can give. When we watch our children with our mom, we know that she is giving the same thing to our children.
Now that we are mothers, Charlotte and I have come to crave continuity of ancestry. We haven’t lost our need for stories and the symbols attached to them, stories we are grateful that our own mother repeats to our children when asked, over and over. Stories that are more meaningful somehow when a grandmother tells them, like the time Gran ate her dinner under the table because our mom had spilled her milk and Gum had sternly decreed: “The next person who spills milk will leave the table.” And the next person happened to be Gran! The kids howl with laughter whenever this story is told and love that we still have the old jug in which that very milk was served.
Our job is becoming evident, after over a year of work and grief. We need to merge the gifts of our grandmother with our own passion, discipline and creativity. Costume jewelry and a chipped tea set are being used to serve queens and princesses. The old top to her defunct baby grand piano will be repurposed as a coffee table, and découpaged with the old photographs and magazines from the 1940’s that Gran kept. We will refurbish and reinvent, mixing the old with the new, just as we plan to reestablish the vegetable garden behind the house and re-carve the path in the woods to her beloved brook. We don’t have to worry about what will endure. Crosswicks will endure as it is infused with new life.
Her spirit has been blowing through us all along, and I am filled with gratitude that I can finally recognize it. Thank you Gran, for guiding us to process and distill your life the way you did in your writing: creating cosmos out of chaos. In return, we promise to keep moving the story forward.
-Léna Roy, Madeleine's Granddaughter