30 May 2008

R.I.P. Elinor

My grandmother, Elinor Sachs Mandelson, died last Wednesday, May 21, 2008; she was 95, and in an advanced state of decline both physically and mentally.

Elinor was a complicated woman. Very smart, and educated beyond what was typical for her generation, she tried hard to apply the Dewey(esque) philosophy she learned at Radcliffe College to every area of her life, imparting a clear sense that one should speak truth to power (though she probably wouldn’t have used that phrase). In my experiences with her, it seemed clear that she believed that knowledge and logic could serve as the mechanisms for overcoming life’s hurdles, and I think she felt this particularly strongly where women were concerned: that women had, in some way, an obligation to try harder to be logical and unemotional in confronting life.

But in spite of my ability to articulate this sense of her, Elinor and I never quite understood each other. As a child, I found her stern, and her love of many of the same things that interested me – books, for instance, or discussing politics – never compensated for that feeling that I was always bumping up against her rules. That was one area where her devotion to logic failed her: her own rules, once established, were hard to break no matter the external (or exigent) circumstances.

Later in life – hers and mine – we both tried to push past this early history, to redefine our relationship and find more common ground. It worked, for a time. Elinor took an avid interest in my writing, and since the web was hard for her to access, I took to sending her large-print copies of many of my articles, along with letters about one thing or another. In 2001 alone I sent more than forty letters. Invariably, within a couple of weeks, I would receive discursive replies in her classic long-hand, on the same stationary she had used for as long as I could remember. This was, I think, a cathartic series of exchanges for us both.

I say “it worked, for a time,” because my grandmother’s deteriorating mental abilities made such exchanges impossible after a certain point. I cannot imagine how this degrading experience must have affected her, and can only wonder (or, perhaps, hope) that her decline was maybe less obvious to her than to those around her.

My lingering sense, from childhood through early adulthood, was that Elinor always wanted something from me that I couldn’t seem to give to either of our satisfaction. And I suppose I felt the same way: I wanted a more emotional connection from someone for whom that kind of love did not, I think, express itself easily. I also had developed such a bond with my paternal grandmother that working harder to evolve my relationship with Elinor did not seem like a priority until very late in her life. We only get one life in which to work out these relationships, and all we can hope for is that we tried our best to do so. Ultimately, I tried, we both tried. What remains now are memories – the very things that, as my grandmother herself discovered, are never as easy to hold on to as we would like to think.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home