“A Rag and Bone and a Hank of Hair” (from The Vampire, Rudyard Kipling, 1897)
Time flows over memories, reshaping them like wind flowing over stone. When I was about 12 years old Granny, my mother’s mother, told me what she wanted written on her gravestone. I didn’t want to hear her telling me she expected to die one day. I’d already lost my mother. Back then my memory was infallible, and I did not yet know that I could forget anything, especially anything she told me. My memory is no longer infallible, but I know that she told me what she wanted for her epitaph was from a poem by Kipling called, “Blue Roses.” The words she loved were, “Half the world I wandered through seeking where such flowers grew.” Even then I knew that Kipling’s tone of poignant longing echoed Granny’s heart.
Kipling was a very popular writer in my grandmother’s day, and he described himself as, “The prophet of the utterly absurd, of the patently impossible and vain”, which is quite fitting because nothing every seemed to turn out quite right for Granny. She was ever discontented, and always busy with errands or household tasks. The most apt example I can think of is that after she died my aunt passed along the wrong line to the undertaker to have etched on her gravestone when the time came. The words now carved into stone over 3,000 miles away from where I write this in are, “All valiant dust that builds on dust”, certainly fitting for Granny because I never knew a woman more valiant or more willing to fight against life with every breath.
The afternoon when she shared her thoughts with me, we were sitting together in the sunny warmth of the farmhouse west east of Delburne in Alberta where I was visiting her at the time. It was the house where my mother was born. It seemed like a huge house to me, and filled with curiosities. It creaked in the wind, the windows rattled and leaked.
Here and there were nestled treasures saved from long ago. I remember dusty china cups, chipped tea pots, photographs, piles of cuttings from newspapers and books. Gravestones are touched by the wind wherever they stand, whatever is written on them.
I loved Granny and I know she loved me, although I can’t say that she loved life all that well. No matter how hard she worked nothing ever seemed to turn out right for her. She poured out her grievances to me that afternoon and I began to realize then that she grieved constantly, restlessly. She regretted that when she was 18 years old, instead of finishing High School in Glendale, Minnesota she left her family to travel across Canada by rail to marry a man she’d never met. He was a distant cousin, and such marriages were not uncommon then, especially for the lonely farmers of the western prairie. Unfortunately, from the beginning she and her man did not get along well. The marriage was not a happy one. Nevertheless, she bore 5 children in the harsh circumstances of a homestead in the wilderness, miles from the railroad and any settled life. By the time I knew her she was tired out, depressed and felt deeply betrayed. Her not everyday living situation distressed her. She had no home of her own. Here’s how that came about.
After my grandfather retired from farming, sometime in the late 1950’s he divided up his land with his sons and bought a tiny house on the west coast not far from Vancouver. Granny didn’t go with him. She really wanted to be independent which was considered odd at the time. However, there was a vacant house on one of the pieces of land he’d bequeathed to Edmund, the eldest of their sons, and it was given to Granny. She intended to make a home of her own there while her son had the use of the land. She was never able to fulfil that intention. What happened? She went away for a few days to visit her daughter in Edmonton. By the time she returned Edmund had sold the house off to a local family. The house was moved off the property before she returned, and Granny knew nothing about it. Uncle Ed made the excuse that the family he sold it to had lost everything in a fire, which was true enough. There seemed to be no way for her to rectify the situation.
My uncle’s cruelty is difficult to fathom, but there it was. Most of Granny’s belongings stayed in the old farmhouse where her children were born, which was bequeathed to her younger son, Gordon. Granny made a bed for herself there on an old davenport in what was once the parlor. She drifted from one family member to another with a few things in a small cardboard suitcase, with her Old Age Pension cheque covering the cost of bus fare. She blamed Ed’s action on his wife Dorothy. Granny always said Dorothy didn’t want her mother-in-law living so close. Gordon was mild mannered and gentle, never married, and lived alone except when Granny was there, and as she came and went the seasons passed and the dust gathered.
Granny made a lonely, yearly circuit. She spent part of the winter with her daughter Lenore in Edmonton. She spent the summers living in with Uncle Gordon. She usually joined her husband in White Rock for a few months every year in late winter and stayed there through the springtime. She didn’t often stay with my family because my father, who married her youngest daughter Eileen, had no patience for her. When my mother died I was in 5th grade and although Granny would have lived with us and taken care of us my father wouldn’t allow it. I grew up with my father and brother, neither of whom were able to nurture me very well. I did my best to take care of them and myself, and took on the task early. I suppose I was like Granny in that way, constantly grieving for my mother and homeless. I felt like a refugee. Nevertheless, I like her carried within myself a relentless hope to have a family someday, and a home, a real home.
As long as I knew Granny, she could never change her story of pain and loss into something more. Everywhere she turned she seemed to run into disappointment and betrayal. It was in literature where she found the most companionship and pleasure in life. She used mail-order catalogues to collect a few volumes at a time, searching for them by lamplight during the years when her children were young. She loved poetry and was very familiar with the work of Browning, Wordsworth, Kipling and many others. She read their work with deep passion, revisiting each one many times.
When I reach back for the memory of Granny’s words, I know there was another scrap of Kipling that she enjoyed. The lines are from his poem, “The Vampire”, published in 1897. I remember how she laughed when she read it aloud, giving the words great expression, her eyes snapping and sparkling violet blue.
“A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
to a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care)
But the fool he called her his lady fair –
(Even as you or I!) …”
I carry the rhythm of those words and the memory of her eyes with me, and I wonder what Kipling meant to capture in this verse. I ask if these words consecrate some ancient fetish, a charm hand-made by a campfire under a muttered and smoky spell. Who knows what the purpose was but it seems to evoke a dark moment in time. What shall we make of these words today, in 2021, the year of the Covid-19 pandemic? How do we find a way, each of us, out of this darkness toward warmer fires within?
The pandemic has brought struggle and to many it has brought illness, death, loss of employment, upheaval from our homes and true suffering. Perhaps many of us can identify with Granny’s isolated sorrow as the pandemic continues to affect our lives. I hope we are able to avoid joining her where she remained, trapped in that feeling of loss inconsolable. Creating a dark charm isn’t going to take us where we need to go when we feel thrown into a struggle for survival against odds that threaten our very being. Retribution, anger or vengeance won’t take us there. What can we do?
Self-healing requires us to widen our focus and ask questions. I ponder the fact that while we mourn our own losses we sometimes find that refugees from broken lives washing up against our shores. I find myself in sympathy with them, knowing how difficult I’ve found finding home to be in my own life. Not everyone feels the same compassion for them. How are we to gain understanding of these disaster driven victims, these refugees?
I find myself wondering if we might be helped toward compassion if we imagine that it is possible that in some alternate scenario in which we lived another life the tables were turned. Is it possible that at some time, in some life we were like them, broken on a battered shore? Or, perhaps we were the oppressors who caused ship-wreck to others. It takes a willingness to use the imagination, but perhaps emotional space for acceptance of others who suffer can be found. What am I suggesting? Not only are we sometimes wounded in life, but we may in some other history we may have caused wounds to others. Perhaps, like Granny, we are unable to process and let go of the darker moments we have experienced. Are all of these meant to be resolved? Perhaps not. But I know that wounds can be seen as a sort of fate-driven kindness. What inner pathways might appear if we can be brave enough to let go of all the sense of injustice we carry? Granny was never good at letting go of injustice. Her loneliness seemed to deepen rather than resolve over time. She nursed pain in her soul instead of allowing a bright new inner fire to erupt into hope.
Individual pathways toward enlightenment differ, but transcending the wreckage opens the way for us to complete the journey back to full-hearted mercy, kindness, trust, compassion, and inner growth. We need to change our focus to draw in love universal, whatever we may understand that to be. Suffering can make us feel that our humanity has been lost. When humanity is stripped from us, how do we become human again?
With the help of a Shaman, in dreams I was allowed to visit myself in former incarnations. I saw myself playing roles I had long forgotten. The journey was humbling. Shocking. (Expand this)
These journeys into times past opened the way for new understanding. Now, my heart dreams that someday I’ll meet Granny on fresh new ground where we can hold hands and laugh together. I will thank her for all she tried to do for me. I will love her with all the power of intention and focus that my own journey now allows. We will remember together the words she wanted on her gravestone and re-write them to allow her to have what she wanted then.
I’m thinking now, as I’m in my 70th year, what words shall I choose in parting from those who love me? I haven’t thought much about that question until now. When John Townsend, my husband died I honored his work with water. He was a chemist, a water quality specialist for the State of Vermont, I wrote, “He gave his life to the fresh waters of Vermont.” It was the simple truth. The simple trust. He left clean water for us. We may choose to keep what flows through our lives clean and fresh with each breath we take.
What are my last requests for this lifetime? I have many more words left to write and leave for others. I hope I can reach the point where I feel I’ve finished my work. I still have a few books that I want to revisit for their companionship although I sometimes think with regret of hundreds I once had lining office shelves. I’ve selected a few to remain just as I will select the words and memories I still mean to keep by me.
Right now, I’m about the age Granny was that summer I visited her on the farm. What do I still want of life? I’d like to finish my work, by that I mean my writing. When I write, my purpose is generally to anchor the beauty I feel around me in worlds seen and unseen as I choose to know them. That’s my priority: To bring into being all the awareness of beauty I possibly can. Just that. That is enough. I hope to settle the dust of my own life as a bright and living spirit. A singing, a bright singing is what I hope to leave resting in the hearts and minds of all who read my words. For now, I’ll give Kipling the last word though. Another of his poems, Pagett, MP, leaves us his sense of the way of making it through our difficulties.
“The toad beneath the harrow knows
Exactly where each tooth-point goes;
The butterfly upon the road
Preaches contentment to that toad.”
I approach each word, each line with a bright spirit and hope is my companion. Walk with me. Come, let’s go.
Accept. Move on. Do not soak yourself in sorrows as Granny did. Walk on toward whatever light you see, whatever movement your inner spirit, your most true knowing, that which sifts into your hand if you look for the hidden gold. Close your eyes and feel that small breath blown toward your soul by the brightness of a butterfly’s wing as it flutters in the summer sun. Find Granny where she wanders now and take her hand. Go home with her, be together, and neither of you alone.