The legacy of my elders

When you are raised by Dutiful Ones, you are mantled with high expectations about your individual contribution to society

BRATTLEBORO — My mother died last month at the age of 93. Active and mentally spry throughout her eighties, her 91st birthday marked a shocking physical depletion that coincided with a steady break from the world.

She was letting go.

First, she stopped summoning her computer guru every time a technical glitch interrupted her internet use, and then she stopped communicating with friends and family by email.

Next, I noticed she was using her landline exclusively, while her iPhone sat unused in her purse. After a year of fiddling with her new iPad, she made a gift of it to me.

She had prided herself on keeping up with technology, and I could not escape the observation that as she disengaged from her gadgets one by one, her body became increasingly weak and frail.

She was curtailing what had been a busy life involving world travel, volunteer work, book groups, cultural and church events, international clubs, and classes at the university. Although she maintained her nutritious, meatless diet, she was eating almost nothing and cutting back on her yoga and daily swim.

Bit by bit, this woman, whose fearlessness and enthusiasm for life had inspired me even when we were most at odds, caved in on herself.

At 91, her life had tapered off to an existence of lying down in darkness and silence 80 percent of the time and resting with a warm washcloth draped over her eyes.

Whenever I see someone approaching the end of their life, I enter a wasteland of wondering: “What's the point of it all?”

* * *

The other day, I found an essay my mother had written for a creative writing class. The topic is what she believed to be the legacy of her parents, Paul and Emily Howe, of Beaver, Pa.

She wrote: “Along with my skin color and my IQ, I obtained my beliefs and values from my parents; the former innate, the latter taught by word and example. They include honesty, responsibility, and being faithful to one's commitments. Above all, I learned from them empathy - understanding the needs of others and caring about those less fortunate than we were.

“Their empathy was demonstrated in specific daily actions which benefited not only the hobo who came to our back door but refugees from oppression in Europe and orphans in Korea, for whom CARE packages were constantly being assembled in our basement.

“From my parents, I witnessed unconditional love rooted in the Christian way. I saw how family love was magnified in our church family in ever-widening circles of compassion for people of different races and cultures worldwide. I learned from our Bible that to whom much is given, much shall be required.”

I have my own impression of my mother's parents. Although my grandmother, Emily Howe, was a fierce liberal and active in the NAACP, she objected in the strongest possible terms when her daughter chose to marry the Catholic son of Croatian-Slovenian immigrants.

It was my grandfather who persuaded her to give “the kids” a chance.

It was my grandfather who strolled into certain parts of Pittsburgh to slip money to panhandlers. I also remember him puttering in his basement assembling packages for Indian reservations out West. He urged us to read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee so that we would not forget. He saw combat duty in both World Wars and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He could be eccentric. On the eve of our entrance into World War II, he was so alarmed by U.S. isolationism that he frequented movie theaters for the sole purpose of rising to his feet when newsreels of der Führer played and shouting “Heil Hitler!” in an effort to show that this madman was being taken seriously in our country and thus constituted a threat.

Twenty-eight years ago, when I arrived at my own father's deathbed and saw, in his vacant stare, emaciated frame, and extremities already turning cold, that he really was dying, I burst into tears, said I loved him, and thanked him for everything he had done for me.

He forced his eyes open into a dazzled stare and blurted through his morphine haze: “I did my duty.”

It did not occur to me to feel hurt or chilled by this until my therapist later pointed out that what he should have said was: “I did it because you are my daughter, my beautiful daughter, and I love you.”

But this was not my father. Or my mother. Or their parents or the parents of their parents, so far as I know.

It made sense to me that my dying father should frame himself in terms of duty, just as my mother's impression of her parents, and of her debt to them, should involve “being faithful to one's commitments.”

Although we sat with my father and recited the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm until he slipped away, I knew that he had given up Catholicism during the war while his destroyer sank beneath him in the Mediterranean.

I don't think he believed in God, not really. And I know that my mother did not because she told me so. She developed some sort of belief in a Holy Spirit consisting of love, compassion, wisdom, and joy, but as far as I can see, in the mindset of my parents and their parents, their true religion was “doing one's duty.”

It was strong in all of them, the Americans whose lives spanned the 20th century and meshed with catastrophic economic upheaval, global war, and even the rewards of coming home to build a new society and vanish into a suburban conformity they may not have wished for themselves but maintained for the sake of having children and re-peopling the Earth.

* * *

As I mourn my mother now, I expand my search for sense and meaning. I look to the genetics that made us and to the world history that surrounded us. Then, with particular care, I look to the space in between: family stories, family values, the familial bond.

Somewhere between ancestry and history, between DNA and the big picture, there was the small, intertwined, human circle that we created around the blazing hearth of our home.

Somewhere between DNA and the big picture, our lives individuate into a chaotic flux of emotions, aspirations, memories, rivalries, dysfunction, psychology, attachment, and love.

Sometimes we transcend and transform our reality. Sometimes we adapt our stories to gloss over our clan's imperfections: a grandmother who, despite her good works, showed prejudice when put to the test; a grandfather whose eccentricities unraveled into bipolar illness and clinical depression; a father who could not say he loved me even at our last hour together, and a mother whose sins of omission toward me have kept numerous psychotherapists employed.

They were the dutiful ones. And I? Not much was ever asked of me. My time and place on Earth have not necessitated great sacrifice, and I have not yielded much in the way of compromise.

* * *

And yet, to say nothing was required of me is not entirely accurate.

When you are raised by Dutiful Ones, you are mantled with high expectations about your own individual contribution to society. Sadly, I am more clear about their achievements than I am about mine.

Now that the last of them has passed on, I experience an urgent need to channel the legacy of my elders into my own contribution to the world.

I long to make that connection - be that connection - so that when my existence reduces to lying down in darkness and in silence 80 percent of the time with a warm washcloth draped over my eyes, I will see meaning, I will see continuity, and I will see the motivating force behind doing one's duty: unconditional love.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates