Gramma's Day

Two lives diverge and progress has made all the difference.

May/June 2010

Reading time min

Gramma's Day

Peter Arkle

1912: My grandmother immigrates from Denhof, Russia. She is 8 with only the clothes on her back. Her uncle dies and is buried at sea. Her mother spends weeks in steerage, too sick to move, and suffers a miscarriage.

1976: I am 8 and also travel on a ship: a luxury liner, the Queen Elizabeth II. I play shuffleboard and eat cream cakes. My family arrives home safely.

1917: At age 12, my grandmother plows a field in Idaho. Jackrabbits raze the crops. In Utah, the family plants sugar beets and fails again. Allergic to beet juice, my grandmother suffers blinding migraines. Smallpox scars her face.

1980: At age 12, I smudge pastels into pastoral landscapes and rustic barns. I read Little House on the Prairie. I get vaccines and can take penicillin when I'm ill.

1923: At 19, my grandmother marries, already pregnant, and becomes stepmother to a toddler.

1988: At 19, a junior at Stanford, I wander the streets of Paris, studying literature at the Sorbonne.

1944: At 40, my grandmother bears her sixth child. She gets her first set of dentures. She makes sheets from the parachute my uncle brings home from war.

2009: At 40, I teach and publish books. I am three years married, with a stepson. I get my first cavity after years of fluoride. I shop at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Would anyone argue my life isn't an upgrade? Armed with college degrees, good health and realized dreams, I must be the peak of the lineage.

But here's the problem with upgrades: They lose features that came with the original. If I'm version 3.0 of our family's women, I come with a great deal of independence and ambition. But I lack 1.0's sense of duty and willingness to sacrifice. When Gramma died, I resented having to travel for her funeral; I was stressed with college-prep homework. Why mourn? Gramma always seemed old and sick. My mother used to explain it this way: Gramma had a hard life. But even when I was no longer a self-absorbed teenager, I still judged her for being joyless.

Now I can understand better what the world offered Katherine Schlegel Fuoco (1904-1983) a century ago. I used to wonder why Gramma didn't read much. But now I realize that seeing a book probably reminded her of how kids mocked her Russkie accent and unfashionable kneesocks, spurring her to leave school. Maybe after she met my grandfather and bore her children, she considered reading, but the headaches, the laundry, the meals thwarted her. Even late in her life, when the house got quiet, perhaps her mind still raced, thoughts fast and frenetic as pinballs. Maybe she never had enough peace for dreaming.

In my imagination, I grant Gramma something other than the rough edition she lived. I picture destinies that provide college degrees or business ownership. I give her the drugs of a brave new world, doses of Adderall or Imitrex that help her read for hours on end. How about Ortho-Novum? Then she won't have to suffer so many labors. I modify the attitudes of certain family patriarchs while I'm at it.

But version 1.0 is the only one that guarantees my mother and me. I am both progress and trade-off. If Gramma's life had been easier, I would be extinct. Version 3.0 has to come from suffering.

My grandmother's voice is recorded on tape at a historical museum: "I have 16 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren with several due this year." Those are numbers I could never bear. Not as much a prisoner of biology or gender, I'm perhaps too fit to help our lineage along.

2010: I drink a latté before the onslaught of a workday, seeking stillness. It eludes me as I consult my iTouch, then watch a woman pocket her "CrackBerry," then covet another woman's Kindle. I pop an Excedrin Migraine. My medicated, manicured body picks up a pen and begins to write.

LYN FAIRCHILD HAWKS, '90, MA '91 is an educator and writer in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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