Here we have four stories woven as one: a quest for home; a memoir; the "romance" of a grandparental couple; and the story of how their stories come together. Each thread has color and texture.
During the writing, the memoir strand has moved from subtext to foreground. The granddaughters quest for a writers voice enlarges into a search for identity. Along the way, her urgent curiosity must invent some of its own strategy. The two unpretentious people who have the part of her story she most hungers for must be approached with tender skill amid the fragility of their closing days.
The author speaks for a post-Boomer generation at home with anomie and an urgent sense that something its roots need is passing. She represents a diaspora, from Boston to San Diego and beyond, of grandchildren with Mennonite memory both disturbing and nostalgic. Her specific memory is of a flavorful southeastern Pennsylvania village from which some gravitate to New York City, while others move in the exactly opposite path. Each community, the author realizes, has its sacred.
Of course Mennonites removed from their roots have no corner on post-rural hunger for materialsoil, subsoil, primal aromas. In any culture, the haunting taste of a food known in childhood, as the tea-soaked madeleine biscuit for Proust, can trigger a sudden overwhelming connection between adult hunger and the primal sensation of felicity. Here a granddaughters relish of her grandmothers savory "Dutch Goose," or her grandfathers quaint, tinkering humor, take her toward inner reconciliation. Humble familial "patterns," she muses, "have the potential to comfort."
Importantly, the world-acquainted granddaughter has the patience to let the grandparents meek voices emerge without a heavy overlay of her own. The latter can wait its turn. After all, she does not instantly understand everything she hears. She does not recognizeor at least does not notethe Scriptures and hymns echoing in the cadences she treasures from her grandfather. Growing up between worlds has not supplied that local, verbal ambiance. A ten-generation, intramural Mennonite past is little preparation for a nuanced encounter with generic American culture, with its individualism, its marriages gone awry, its loneliness, its non-specificity of memory.
For that matter, Baby Boomers of all cultures have not "heard many of the old stories"; havent heard a great-grandfathers pungent sermons over the riffling of a hundred Bible-leaves in response to his shouted references; havent read their great-grandmothers diaries; havent absorbed, in a mood beyond amusement, accents and phrases that used to epitomize their peoples seriousness. Thus the present writer, who has known emptiness, and her grandparents, who have not, dont have the same vocabulary. But she is recapturing something; she finds charm in their archaic expressions. Eliminating the screen of her own hastiness by using a tape recorder, she sifts respectfully among their modest mantras of "Well," and "I guess."
Moving past pity for the child in ourselves that communal pressure sometimes frightens into abortive confessions and affirmations, the author likewise accepts the shock, common to middle age, of finding herself repeating parental manners. Once free to listen to the story she seeks, she finds she can stroke the crazy quilt of familial patterns with affection.
Her grandparents story is told. As hers is still unfolding, she speaks of the Buddha and a longing foreven a quick taste ofnirvana. While such terms are foreign to her devout grandfather, his laconic account of his own peace-bringing glimpses into "the heavenlies" brings her a twinge of connection. She senses that there is something more than zero left of her own childhood faith. Hearing trans-generational voices with an acuity that vagueness had dulled, she senses more than dogma and empty transition in her heritage. Under the brown leaves her grandmother stirs in the late fall there are bright red berries.
John L. Ruth
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© 2003 by Cascadia Publishing House
publisher of DreamSeeker Books