By Mary K. Eggert
Issue 119, July/August 2003
Now with a holy host of others standing 'round me . . . -James Taylor, "Carolina in My Mind," © 1968, EMI Songs, Ltd.
Sometimes when I look at my niece, a small crowd gathers. And it is good--so very good--to see them.
Some in the crowd are the "regulars" in my life; I find her mother in the angle the four-year-old's eyelashes form at the corner of her eye, and her father in the tuck of her mouth. Others I spend less time with, because of distances geographical or sometimes personal--an absence very present when I see, and remember, the bonds young children form. I sometimes catch the glint of a wild uncle in the one-year-old, in that look she gets when she has more energy than she knows what to do with, or in the way her forehead compresses when she reaches, oh so intently, for something she shouldn't have.
Others in the crowd left a very long time ago, and it's sometimes hard to re-create their faces, so I warm to catch the suggestion of a grandmother in the way the light-come and gone in a breath-crosses the one year old's face.
Other times, I sense someone I feel I ought to know but can't name, and the moment passes. Maybe it's someone a great-aunt pointed to in a scrapbook as I sat on her lap. Or maybe I'm just mistaken.
It leads me to wonder about the child who seems not to resemble anyone familial at all. Is she a sharp right turn in the path of this family, or is it possible the trait of an ancestor-one who died so long ago no one even knows he lived-has pushed its way up through strata of genetic material?
The crowd around my niece grows larger because relatives, at least in memory, rarely stand alone. A thought of my grandmother leads to one of her sister, who walked with a limp and served us tea-in her good china, no less, the ultimate flattery to a child-when we visited; and then to her brother, the priest, who stood at the head of the table and carved (mangled, my father recalls) the roast at Sunday dinners. And then to her two daughters who died in middle age, which made my grandmother ashamed to grow old.
While I am happy to see those I love in the crowd, I realize that not all influences are benign. I know there were also ancestors ruled by melancholy, rage, drink, or ignorance, and the harm they caused still leaches down through the generations as fears we can't give a name to, a vague but too-frequent sense of homelessness. And yet, I believe these people are somehow necessary to us, that one of the tasks in life is to learn to pass through and out of our private Siberias.
But not now. At the moment, the elder niece makes a backward S when she writes her name, and the other wobbles and plops, wobbles and plops when she tries to walk. These are innocents I am talking about, so I push the hurtful ones well back from the crowd. I wish only that ferocious love could guarantee my nieces safe passage.
When I remember the safety a grandmother offered, and see a bit of her in my niece, I am not sure that the chasm we believe to exist between the living and the dead is as wide or as deep as we imagine. Is it possible this resemblance is meant to remind us that the dead are with us-in our hearts and memories, yes-but maybe too as unseen companions who died but never lost interest, and who can't help but drop in to see how it all turns out?
Some religious traditions speak of a "communion of saints," the belief that the living and the dead are not separate. I am sure of very little, but I do know that when both nieces were newborns, on occasion when I would I lean over one to change a diaper, a very specific point in mid-air-the space behind and to the right of my shoulder-would catch her attention and she would erupt in absolute delight. Pediatricians tell us babies can't focus their eyes well, and that what appears to be a smile can be a spasm, or gas, but to me she looked for all the world like someone overjoyed to see the dearest of friends.
The crowd also tells me I come from somewhere, that I belong to a people, the tiniest of nations-loved ones, questionable ones, unknowns, and the disowned. Some cultures hold this belief more closely than 21st-century America, with its emphasis on the immediate and the individual.
The Old Testament speaks of the 14 generations from Abraham to David and the 14 more from David to the Babylonian captivity. We might see that as more than a biblical conga line, and instead as a teaching that a people have a history that its members inherit, create, and entrust to the next generation. The recitation of that lineage could be understood to say (with apologies to Jewish theology), "Listen carefully, this is important. Here are your forebears, and the story of what they did with their lives and what they gave to you. Now it's your turn to carry all of this forward, and what you do, seen and unseen, critical and trivial, matters in ways you can't begin to know."
And always that question we might prefer not to hear, the one that can trouble us so: "What will you give?"
Mary K. Eggert would like to be as wonderful an aunt to Tess and Ruby as her Aunt Kate, who died in 1972, was to Mary's brothers and sisters and herself. She lives in Massachusetts.
Image is a photo montage of Bridget Hallie Doyle Goldberg with her relatives, by her Aunt Dana.