My relatives and I don't speak particularly often. This is due mostly to who we are, and not what we have done to each other. I talk most frequently to my mother and my grandmother, and of the two, because we are more alike in cast of mind and habit, my grandmother and I talk a little less. We'd welcome more conversation, but we are both not much for the telephone and are each almost embarrassed to make the first move, now that we are both adults and have become something like friends. It is as if too-frequent contact would ruin this relation; it must be felt that we are choosing to speak freely out of esteem for each other, uncoerced by blood.
"I think Chelsea was a little homesick last weekend," says my grandmother of my youngest cousin, now in college. "She kept texting me. She said she wasn't, but I think she was." My grandmother loves this clingier cousin and is pleased to be needed, but she reports this in a tone of gentle indulgence of a weakness. She cannot imagine behaving this way. I, the firstborn, precedent-setting grandchild, would not behave this way.
So we speak every few weeks, and in the interim my grandmother travels: up and down the dirt roads and mown paths of my grandparents' home in the woods, occasionally to the homes of her children in the city and the suburbs. When we are reunited, she tells me the news of the world.
Among our family, my mother's boyfriend is a sore thumb: short, twitchy, throbbing with talk.
"Every time he comes up here, he asks the same stupid questions," my grandmother complains. "So you know he's never listening." This man has lived his entire life in exurban Indiana. He has never been made to understand the rhythms of the country or the city. Both scare him in different ways, and so like a dog he barks ceaselessly when confronted with either. He does not mean to be unfriendly.
"And oh, your uncle can't stand him," my grandmother says. I hadn't considered it—only my grandmother, apparently, ever sees more than a flash of light beneath the heavy door of my uncle's inner life—but now that she says it, I know it could not be otherwise. "'The guy never shuts up!'"
"No, we're really not a family of big talkers," I agree.
In illustration, she tells me a brief anecdote: on vacation farther north in Michigan (they are always and only venturing farther north, to ever more isolate lands), my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, and cousin were eating together in a diner, in easy silence. Midway through the meal, the diner's manager stopped by their table simply to remark:
"Wow! Wild crowd we got over here!"
But if there is a wild card among them, it will be my grandfather. He has buoyant moods. They seem to upset my grandmother in the same way she is upset if he opens a second beer. He then becomes unknowable to her; he has suddenly oriented his being towards a small crowd or a waitress, whereas when things are in order he is turned only towards the habits he has established in the lonely woods. He is not then turned towards her, exactly, and nor would she want him to be—"Your grandfather is being funny lately—keeps grabbing me and telling me that he loves me!" she remarked during one unsettling period of their life together several years ago—but the pattern of his thoughts and motions is the one she knows; it is open to her tracing, if she likes.
But here is the form his buoyancy often takes these days, she tells me. For instance, a young woman has just sold my grandfather a power tool and is explaining its lifetime warranty.
"Oh, well, you'll make money on that, then!" my grandfather says. "I'm just an old man who'll be dead within the year."
"He'll outlive us all," my grandmother assures the woman. It has become her line in these situations, her part in the vaudeville act, for—and I did not know this!—my grandfather has been broadcasting his incipient demise to all and sundry since the two of them met.
He was 19, when they met.
(I have also recently learned that my father did roughly the same thing when he and my mother were together—agonized over every birthday, worried about his health. Ah, Dad! Another point of pointless sympathy between us.)
I recall an incident from my childhood discussed in low tones, the sort of thing one can never later drag out into the light: my grandfather alone in a closed bedroom with one of his shotguns, a bang, a hole, thankfully, in the wall.
My grandfather is a competent man when he cares to be, and deliberate in his carelessness. The family was largely relieved when he retired early from his job as a delivery driver: yes, he was sacrificing money, but he was growing increasingly angry with his superiors and, they thought, would likely have hit somebody if he'd continued to rattle and rage down the streets much longer.
Even so, I doubt he ever took a sick day. Now in his 70s, he wakes before dawn and tends a shrinking garden and keeps clear of sticks a lawn around the house large enough to host a traveling circus. My grandmother's body has been sliced by back pain and bad knees and foot problems since I was young, but my grandfather really does seem on track to be a cursed immortal: a spring in his step, a bad joke on his lips, and a dark glimmer in the black of his eyes.
We might not really understand other people, my grandmother and I. We can pin down motives and watch subconscious currents nudge the ones we love; we are not entirely oblivious. But as much as we attempt sympathy, we cannot quite fathom why people misuse their lives as they do—why, seeing the good path, they would head down the bad.
A dark thing has been happening down my grandparents' road. Two things, really, but one is still happening and the other has removed itself already. The latter concerns a walking buddy my grandmother had acquired from the home directly south of theirs. In the country, you accept the friends proximity grants you, and it takes some truly egregious misdeed to refuse their society. This woman has now moved away, and my grandmother is a little glad, for she often had to hear from the woman about her fights with her husband—the husband for whom she'd abandoned her children, as their father was Mexican and her new husband an ardent racist.
The woman confided that the fights often became physical. My grandmother told her she must go: tell no one, but simply wait for him to leave the house, take her things, and leave. The woman agreed this was correct, but in the end did not leave; when the two of them moved, it was to a trailer together in another part of the state.
"Well, things couldn't have been that bad, I guess," my grandmother concludes. I demur, say that it could certainly have been that bad, that it's hard to comprehend the strength of the ties that can bind even the worst people together.
I am arguing for a kind of agnostic sympathy here, where my grandmother prefers soft judgment, but we are both struck with the same essential bafflement. My grandmother and I have always stood within ourselves ready to walk away from the entangling ugliness of other people's emotions. (It is mostly luck and our own aloofness that has ensured we've rarely had to.) Why can others not do as we do?
The second dark event: there is a family at the end of the road to whom my grandparents have been close since this couple bought their land and started building their A-frame house and having babies. Theirs had seemed to be a solid family, the younger kids still in school, the eldest son a happy contractor in Alaska (where many rural Michiganders' idle dreams tend: the well-paid work, the wildlife, the thrillingly low population density). This year, however, the husband was diagnosed with a particularly hungry form of brain cancer. Prognosis was poor from the start, and the man's condition began to deteriorate rapidly. Very soon, he lost the use of his legs and resorted to a wheelchair—hard enough in a city with its inconsistent sidewalks, but treacherous when you live in the woods.
Then another crisis occurred. When the man was most recently hospitalized, his mother arranged for him to have a special visitor. Her timing, however, was poor. The rest of the family learned in that hospital room that the man had a mistress—had had her for two years, and was not about to give her up now that the end of his life was so near.
The revelation split not just the family but the (very small) neighborhood in two. The man said his marriage was no good, and he was forced to act as he had. My grandmother sided with the wife, but was not about to shun the man with brain cancer. And in fact he seemed to crave her approval. He'd wave her down when their paths crossed. She and my grandfather would sometimes arrive back from town and find ruts mashed into the dirt embankment up toward their house: tracks from his wheelchair's unsuccessful attempt to reach their yard in the midst of a muddy summer.
One day, alone at home, she heard a muffled banging. The man was outside, thumping a wooden post as a doorbell since he couldn't climb the steps. He wanted to explain himself; he wanted to be understood.
He would not be. My grandmother is a polite woman and likes to do what is expected, but it was not in her to offer even the insincerest feint at absolution. She told me: "I looked him in the eye and all I could say was, 'Why, Don?'"
"Of course, who am I to judge," she added with little feeling—meaning not that she in particular would be a hypocrite to do so, but that no one on this earth rightly could.
There is an author I need to read, but haven't yet: Marilynne Robinson, who had a profile in the New York Times Magazine a week ago. Of her Midwestern upbringing, she says:
"There was a very strong tendency among people to be isolated. More hermits per capita than you'd find in most places. We were positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with."
This was never put into so many words for me growing up, but it is, I find, a core value. Come to us with a problem of the heart and my grandmother and I may offer some mild counsel, but if you cannot live comfortably within the mind you have fashioned, we know there is not much we can do. We have established comprehensive laws on our own islands, and know that they will not hold up in court on yours.
One could then pull up the bridges, close the gates. But, aware of my capacity for hardness, for fleeing toward the desert hermitage at any warm-bodied threat, I try to cultivate a tenderness within me. I read, of course, endlessly: fiction, essays, pages and pages of people revealing their lives. (I am for one thing magnetically drawn toward advice columns, this being the closest thing I have to a guilty genre pleasure.) On certain attractively lit evenings I go walking and every stranger I pass provokes a surge of misty fellow-feeling; I grab onto it and let it pull me as far as it will.
And this is perhaps one reason why I choose to live in cities and wrap myself in the society of the internet—despite on some level preferring wilderness, silence, and the works of the eloquent dead. I think I am a broader, more moral person when I am made to bump up against so many other minds.
For even in the woods, it appears, one will eventually be found and asked to bear witness to the pain of other lives. It would seem to be the core human duty; accordingly, I will try to do as my childhood of wilderness training instructs and be prepared.