My mother called me tonight to tell me that my Aunt Gladys died Wednesday night, at eighty one, seven years after the stroke that wrecked her, body and soul, and just a week after she'd had yet another. After her second stroke, long since confined to a nursing home, robbed at last of speech, appetite, will, attended daily to the end by her devoted husband, Ernie, my mother's last sister, wanting nothing else, finally went. The loss to my uncle, for whom the care of his wife was his all, I can not imagine. My mother's sadness, now she is the last of her family, my father, who is likewise the last survivor, will share. I can not imagine such a thing, but he will understand. My mother is lucky in this, just as I am lucky to have them both still with me, if far away, as I feel specially tonight. The generation that raised me is passing.
I am not a great believer in family. I am fortunate in my own, just as I am in the lover that found me, the friends I've made, just as I was in the friends I've lost. Every loss reminds me of my good fortune, of the chance that brought me to where I am. That I knew my grandmothers, and that they were good women, was lucky. That my parents are living, that they've been good parents, that their children are fond of one another, that, at nineteen, I met the man with whom I would spend my life, that I have found so many friends, some more than once, and that some, after long absence from my life, have again found me; all the circumstances that define my life as a man so favored, seem to me to have had blessed little to do with any distinction of character or inheritance I might have been given. All of it is chance, luck if that sounds less cold. Beyond my grandparents, and a few stories of my great-grandparents, I know little or nothing, and have little curiosity to know more. Should I learn that I am descended from Inuits rather than Irish, I could not be other than surprised, but I can not say that I would much care, or that such a surprise would do much to change me now, or extend my curiosity any further into the past, at least not with the thought of somehow coming to know myself any better than I do. That I have relations, near and not so dear, raised by people raised next to the very people who raised me, and that these relations have not had the same good fortune I have, tells me that any investment in genealogy, any attempt by me to trace the shape of, or add distinction to my own life by reconstructing the lives of my ancestors would be, again, just for me, pointless. Our biographies are none too dependent, at least as Americans, on the long lost service to long dead kings, on fortunes made and likewise lost by this or that forefather, on the memory of tribe, old country or heritage. To pursue such history is to gather up dust, at least if, as there has been for me, there is satisfaction enough in recognizing that an otherwise indifferent universe has done me little harm and that those that I've known, those that raised and those that love me, are enough. Why should I give a tinker's damn about a past I have no share in?
When my father's last aunt died, he inherited a box of old photographs. In it were pictures of people we knew, but also many, most, we did not. This man in a stiff collar had my father's chin, and that lady something like my own eyes, but they were ghosts to us. Even the photographs with names on the back, first names and relations; "Uncle Jack," "Cousin T. at picnic, 1902," meant nothing to us. It was sad, but for the ghosts sake, that no one should remember them, know their names. For us, for my family as I know it, it was an occasion of curiosity and reflection on the transience of life, but really, no more than that.
Family, my family at least, is what it is for me, today. My memory extends as far as my parents and grandparents. For me, it is enough.
Reading a book by Adam Nicolson, called, in the American edition, Quarrel with the King: The Story of an English Family on the High Road to Civil War, I am reminded of a society where the past was all or nearly all one had with which to define one's place; status, wealth, position, power, all came from birth, or in defiance of birth. In the case of the Earls of Pembroke, fabulously wealthy rebels in the English Civil War, their exaltation was the result of the inevitable founder; a brutal, violent, semi-literate social climber, the bastard son of a noble, the first Earl, from the time of Henry VIII. Luck played a considerable part in his rise, in his marriage, in the foundation of his vast estates and power. Luck and ambition and barbarity, as always, if successful and sustained, require, in succeeding generations, not only stewardship, but a generosity of imagination that can make of such a bloody and ugly past, something, well, noble I suppose is the not un-ironic word.
Nicolson's book, so far as I can tell, was titled, in it's original British edition, "Arcadia." A better title, as it is not so much the story just of the rise and fall of a noble family, as seen in the famous family portrait, by Van Dyck, of the Earl of Pembroke and his family in 1634 or '35, but about the process by which such a glorious object, and the seemingly god-like people portrayed in it, came to be; the family history that made them the richest family in England, the social transformation from fat Henry's day down to their own, a vast and violent transformation that destroyed the monasteries, stole the commons from the farmers, built up vast estates and owed everything to the monarchy against which the Pembrokes eventually rebelled. Moreover, Nicolson's book is a meditation on the mythologies created to sustain such a system, in particular Sir Philip Sydney's famous "Arcadia," written in and in tribute to the very parks and walks created as a perfect expression and physical manifestation of the supposedly blissful social order of "ancient" nobility. That was the myth for which the Pembrokes eventually quarreled withe the King.
Then there is the author himself, the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, the son of Nigel Nicolson, and himself the present owner of Sissinghurst Castle, where he is, as I understand it, now shaping a model farm. Again, family and history shaping the present in a way I find quite alien, though more interesting in a way than the subjects of the author's latest book, knowing something of the authors ancestors as they themselves were authors of such interesting biography and autobiography.
If all of this is, as I said, alien to me, it is no less interesting for that. And thinking just today of my own family and how much smaller the family known to me has just become, I wonder if I am not wrong in thinking of our past, of my family's, as unimportant and irrelevant to my own life. As Nicolson is so good to point out in his book, such records as have been preserved show that many men and women, not otherwise remembered from the shadow of so great a family as the Pembrokes, tend to be recorded only in their distress, usually as a direct consequence of the actions and ambitions of their noble neighbors and masters. Perhaps such advantage might not have been taken, or even have been possible, had those poor people, the very kind of people from whom I should probably trace my own ancestry, been better at remembering their own past. Had they been, they might have been less likely to defer to the forces of history as represented by these barons and earls and kings. But then, my forgetfulness of such history was only made possible I suppose because someone, some great-great-grandfather must have had the gumption and the courage to leave all those noble bastards and their offspring to their fates, and escape to this country, where, eventually, his descendants had the right to forget him without consequence. Without knowing even the names of such men and women to whom I owe my present disinterest, I thank them here. That the memory of my last Aunt is something I will keep at least so long as I live, is a tribute of a kind at least, to those who's memory I did not need to know her.