How do we take stock of a life?
My Grandma was fourteen when she first left home to begin working and she didn’t stop until a year and a half before she died. Up until those final two years she maintained a large garden and made sure that none of its bounty ever went to waste, including baking some eighty pies during one year when the apple tree and the saskatoon bush were both particularly productive. Given how she worked, we all knew that it was an open question as to whether she would adapt well to the relative inactivity of the retirement home. She did better than some of us thought she would, but still, it wasn’t long.
I have been trying to gain a sense of her life, to understand it and to witness its dignity, but I didn’t know her well, didn’t grow up going ‘over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.’ So living close by in the last decade gave me the chance to get to know her a little bit better. We would have soup and a sandwich at the local college coffee-shop together using the coupons she would receive in exchange for her volunteer hours at the college mail room. Always finding places where she could be useful, she would fold newsletters and stuff them into envelopes, her hands strong, wrinkled with veins blue beneath age-thin skin. We would eat together and I would ask her questions about her younger years; she would reply with stories about working at a bakery near the airport in Calgary during the war, and about the handsome young airmen that would come in looking for coffee and a pastry.
How can I conceive of what these stories mean and the dignity that my Grandma’s life carried? The problem is, I am still young and the possibilities of my future seem to carry more weight, more reality than the passed possibility of my her life. How much more is this true after her death? How much more real to me is the present I live within now, than the past to which my Grandma’s earthly life belongs? As human beings, we are oriented towards the future and so to make sense of the past remains difficult. How to describe her life, to understand it, without romanticizing it?
Jurgen Moltmann helps me out in this regard. In his chapter on Time in God in Creation, he speaks of the tyranny of the present inherent in our simple classification of time into future, present and past. In response to this he begins to line up the words beside each other: the present past, the present future, the future future. The point of his formulations is to help us understand that each event, each action, each point of time has its own set of pasts and futures. This seems obvious, but we don’t often thing in this way. The category that interests me here is the ‘past present.’ My Grandma’s life did not happen in the past, as if the reality of her life must always and only be related to my present moment. Instead, her life has its own category. She lived in the past present. It was, and is, a present and it had its own future, its own set of possibilities. This enables me to celebrate her life not in relation to my own present or, indeed, in relation to the invigorating possibilities of my own future, but instead, in relation to the dignity of her own time, in the moments of her own days that are not so much lost as hidden from view. As in all good things, my Grandma’s life had her time and she had her hope, for this all hangs on the category of the eschatological future which gathers all our possibilities into one.
All that is required of me is to witness to the time that my Grandma had, to witness to the dignity it always-already carries. It reminds me that actuality is always, in fact, more beautiful than possibility.
My favourite moments with my Grandma were when I could see her in the company of her children: my aunts, my uncle and my father. In the presence of her children she had the fruits of much of her work for much of her history with her. In the freedom of this goodness, and in the freedom of her older age, she became, in small moments, a little girl giggling over a mischievous thought or deed. Her laughter did not happen in the abstract or in the idealized moment of my memory; they happened in their own time. There was, and is, a time for conversation around the dinner table, a time for grandmothers, a time for turning thirty, a time for turning sixty-two or ninety-one, a time for living and a time for dying, and a time for rising again.