Imagined Ancestors

I am not at all sure I approve of this century. All its virtues are double-edged, edges that cut more deeply for being denied.

Of course I’m grateful to the time we live in.  I’m grateful for my life: had I lived at any other time, I would certainly have been dead several times over from illnesses I’ve survived.

Most of the time I give thanks to the internal combustion engine, which enables me to see the people I love who live four hundred miles to the north and south, a trip someone a century ago might make by stage only a few times in a life.

Still, I’m troubled by the mobility we see as a gift, the mobility which allows corporations to move people around like chess pieces, which leads us to believe that three or four major moves in a life is normal, in which the phrase, “make friends” makes sense.

Yet for the mobility which has brought my friends and family here from 400 miles, l400 miles, 3500 miles away, I am grateful. For knowing I will see the Arizona desert again (without being stuck there), again see the geometry of Sierra granite covered with snow, I thank modernity.

That I must say how grateful I am is a measure of our time. Our culture reminds us continually how lucky we are, as film theorist Maria LaPlace comments, the culture speaking in the scolding voice of immigrant grandmothers.

I think often of my great-grandmothers’ lives, measuring the cost of my own.

If I had been born Dora, who married Fred Spafford, “the meanest man in the world,” everyone said, all my gifts would drown in Fred’s chaos–his gambling, the mistress he brought home. What could I have done, with five children? The children called her “auntie.”

But had I been Mary Etta Chisholm, I would have been an artist and a musician, the much-loved daughter of a minister, who brought her family’s big brick house in Philipsville, Ontario, to a peaceful marriage with Mose Seed.

Were I Dora, or Mary Etta, my life would have been mandated by whom I married, as women’s lives have always been, but then I would have been unable to free myself from the consequence of bad choices.

Or I might have been born Martha McCormick, about whom I know little except that she married her first cousin, after a series of intermarriages that make the British royalty look tame. I have what must be Martha’s family album–for she is the only one of her immediate family not pictured. The picture above is of Margaret Livingston, her husband’s step-mother who was in this gothic web also her aunt.

Or I might have been born my grandfather Mitchell’s unknown birth mother, who gave up her child, or had it taken from her, or who died.

For the right women now have to keep their children, for the right to leave marriages, for the right to take my work beyond the family farm and my art beyond the family livingroom, for the right not to have died in childbirth, as Margaret’s mother and sister may have, I am grateful.

But there are costs in this century, costs we are made too grateful to count. Our gratitude masks the costs, is meant to mask them, points out psychologist Deborah Wright, to keep us in the service of the system.

If I could trade lives with one of these great-grandmothers, I would choose Mary Etta’s: what I know of her life frames the losses I see in mine.

I do not imagine her days were easy. Once she married, she lived the busy life of a farm woman, until her husband got a job with a baking powder company in Toronto.

But with only one child, what she did in a day she could do well. I imagine she could work for several hours at one thing, a luxury I rarely experience. I like to think that she didn’t see time as the enemy, but as the canvas on which she painted her days. I’m sure that her art and her music were often postponed for her work, and that she mourned it: we would have that in common.

Even when she and Mose moved to Toronto, they spent summers at the house, so Mary Etta never was torn away from whole communities of people; she didn’t lose family except to death.  Her grandson, my father, lived with them summers, and she saw her gift for drawing come alive in his hands. No one went west in Mary Etta’s family. No one took his father’s arrogance off to someone’s idea of a necessary war, as did Dora Spafford’s son, my grandfather. No one came home shell-shocked, abusive and desperate, as did one of Martha McCormick’s sons.  No one in her neighborhood came to love and know her in-laws, and then leave them, to come to know another set, and then lose them, and then another, as many of us have had to do.

What looks good to me about Mary Etta’s time and place, her class and her people, is the constancy of human contact, of landscape, of houses, three of them sold back and forth in the family over a hundred years. I would like to have looked at the same red barn every morning since my childhood, the same silo, the same main street, with its six houses and one store, the street first with buggies, and then with the hot rod in which my son-in-law would come back back from the war.

I would like to see the same neighbors’ faces, lined from outdoor work, blur over the years. I would like to see Ernie Tackaberry’s son from next door, who would later buy the Philipsville house, come home from playing professional hockey to help his mother.  I would like not to have parts of my life scattered across the continent, folded inside the lives of friends I have loved.

I can  imagine that Mary Etta had days in which daily life was related only to itself, to producing the food which was eaten, to repairing the house. In this century, daily life is an inconvenience to be managed for something outside of it.  That splitting, these losses, are the costs of the freedom, the relative health, the mobility that privilege brings us.

I like to imagine Mary Etta watching her grandson, my father, pink and speechless at being allowed to ride with Ernie Tackaberry on his two-horse hay rake. I like to imagine her there still today, though I know this nostalgia is more about fiction than not.

Roz Spafford

June 9, 1988

Santa Cruz Sun