I’m in my grandparents house after everyone has gone to sleep, drinking their armagnac and sifting through a box of pictures, some close to a hundred years old. My maternal family keeps much better records of its march through time and space than my paternal. The pictures are all black and white, and faded around the edges. They have the ghostly feel of being untethered to any reality that such pictures often do–the round faced girl in the short white dress, scowling at the camera outside a stone house, has no name and belongs to everyone. She lives in the picture.
Some pictures, though, do have names. Gertrude Mundy, then her daughter, Mary Gertrude Mundy, show up again and again. They have the same hard, dark face and soft, gauded eyes.
Midway through the pile I come upon a photo that can only be my grandmother. She’s staring at something, her lips pursed just a little, the same way mine get when I’m thinking. I have no idea what she’s thinking about.
I’ve come to know, as I reached adulthood myself, more about my parents and grandparents. Their accomplishments are for the most part a matter of public record, and I’ve become privy to their hardships and sins bit by bit. They slip out in pieces, my mother remembering hers (“I think she was lonely, then…”) or remembering her mother’s memories of her grandmother (“She said George was never the same afterwards.”) But it’s such a tease, opening up the door to a tantalizing, terrifying world in which dead ancestors and living caregivers are people apart –and then closing it with a bang. They lived and suffered, what more can you want to know?
But how, and why, and what they felt, and the changes, slow and imperceptible except in hindsight, to the character: this is what you want to know, and to which you have no access. You know your forbears like the sailor knows the iceberg. Like the black-and-white girl, frozen in a perpetual scowl, they exist apart, behind a barrier you cannot pass.
It would be easier if you could see some of their youthful follies, crises, repentances; but even the elders still alive have lost all these identifying extravagances without quite leaving them behind. They’ve become absorbed into the character, inextricably tangled in its other matter, leaving the surface bare.
It would perhaps also be easier if their lives had contained more action. Had my grandmother divorced my grandfather I would still know as little about her, but I could fool myself into thinking I did. Outward action is at least definite–it’s disruptions give form to a life, the illusion that you are seeing the shape of it, real, and full. If you can’t dismiss a ghost, you can at least put it on a stage and clothe it in a costume, and turn a haunting into a drama.
This is partially the appeal of Mad Man, Daniel Mendelssohn argued: to bridge the lonely distance between generations with the whispered invitation to come view their dirty laundry; an intimacy manufactured in voyeurism.
“As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having that privileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world they inhabited as trivial—as passing fads, moments of madness?”
But I’ve never watched Mad Men, and though in the picture my grandmother’s haircut and bold-patterned shift dress costume her as a 60’s housewife, she lived her life in patterns of ordinary staidness.
None of that, however, makes her sorrows and sins and private joys any less real. Nor can I give up asking who she is, and why, trying to force a portrait in profile to turn and face me. After all, my mouth purses in the same way.
In the morning I’ll ask her what she’s thinking. Nighttime, though, is for armagnac and ghosts.