Today would have been my grandmother’s 79th birthday. She died when I was 11, 19 years ago. She was 60. The year was 1998.
Have you ever noticed that numbers are often the only fixed facts about death as time goes on? Dates and ages are easily rattled off, but the stories of death are often more difficult to tell with the passing years. It seems pathetic that I can tell you those facts so clearly, but I can’t tell you the name of the hospital where she died. I can’t tell you what her last words were. My mother was with her when she died, the memory probably etched so permanently in her mind that she could retell it as though it had just happened.
I’ve been trying to write the story of the women in my maternal line, perhaps as a memoir of sorts; perhaps as a novel, filling in the gaps time has created with fiction; perhaps just for my own growth and clarity. The endeavor has cursed me with the worst case of writer’s block I’ve ever experienced.
How do you write the story of a life you didn’t live? How do you write the story of a life you didn’t even witness in full? Time steals from us the details and often the very soul of the stories we try to remember. Things that feel unforgettable in our own lives will one day be forgotten by all. If we’re lucky we’ll be remembered for a few generations, but even then, our very personhood will probably be summed up in one phrase. “The one who…”
Take my great, great grandmother for example. In my family she’s simply known as the one who said she’d come back as an owl. Through a bit of family research I’ve learned that her name was Susannah Scott Hoy. She and her husband had eight children, 3 sons and five daughters. She was born in 1866 and died in 1961. (Here we are with the numbers again.) That’s all I know about her. Well, her name, the numbers, and the owl thing. I have no idea if it was a one-time or ongoing joke, or if (gasp) she actually believed she’d come back as nocturnal bird. What I do know is that she’s the reason my mother shudders every time she sees an owl. Susannah lived a whole life, and all I know her for is one sentence. When I die, I’ll come back as an owl.
But this isn’t limited to my family alone. Think of the unnamed biblical characters, people known simply as Noah’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, or the woman at the well. We also have several examples of nameless historical icons: the soldier and nurse kissing in Times Square, the “babushka lady” in the photos of JFK’s assassination, a tomb holding an unnamed soldier. All of these people summed up with one identifying fact, but the true facts of their lives forgotten within a few generations.
This is a haunting reality. More haunting still when I consider the fact that I have three sons and many of my daily sentences include the words stinks, booger, or penis. Should the majority of my life story be summed up in one sentence for coming generations, my entire life remembered by one small phrase, I don’t want it to include one of those words. Can I get an hallelujah?
Whether or not we know the details, we are formed by history. This is especially true of our families. The writer in me sees the beauty of the stories, even in the most mundane daily occurrences. And so I write. I force myself to push through the writer’s block because their stories deserve to be told, and so do mine.