What Would Our Dead People Think?

Hubby and I were privileged (That sounds a little like Sarah Palin talking, doesn’t it?) to be in the audience last Saturday evening at the SLC Library 2008 Dewey Lecture Season at which the featured speaker was Ann Patchett, whose fourth novel, BEL CANTO, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in 2002, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. This is one of several Dewey Lectures we’ve attended in the last couple of years, and we’ve never been disappointed and remain forever grateful to those friends who share their tickets with us.

Although I have not yet read any of Ms. Patchett’s work, If her storytelling even approximates the skill with which she held the audience spellbound the 75 or 80 minutes she was onstage, I have a lot of good reading ahead of me with what she’s already published. Plus, she gave a small glimpse of a new novel she’s now working on. So, even if the country sinks into depression and there’s nothing but doom and gloom ahead of us, I may not have much else but I’ll have a lot to read while things get worked out. (One can hope!)

One remark of hers really resonated with me, how we tend to quit talking about the dead people in our lives after awhile. I thought about that, and it’s true, after awhile we stop asking our friends about their dead people. Wonder what would happen for instance, if I said to my friend, Mary, whose mother I know to be many years dead, “Wow, Mary, this presidential election is pretty exciting. Not only do we have the first African American running for president, there’s a possibility that a woman may become our first vice-president. What do you think your mother would say about that?”

At 66, I have a long list of dead people, but I’ll start my reflection with my grandmothers born in the nineteenth century. Both were widowed when they were in their fifties. Afterward, one rarely left the farm and is so much an indelible memory of that place that I cannot imagine her in any other setting. After the two grandsons she raised to adulthood left home to begin new families, she seemed content to be free at last to set her own pace–or more specifically–to sit in the rocker on her front porch and read.

And it didn’t take the other one long to finally liberate herself enough to cut her hair short after being committed for many many years to 100 burdensome brushstrokes daily to her long, silky hair. I wish I’d had the gumption to ask her if she liked her hair long like that, or was only following the dictates of her husband. I suspect the latter since I observed for myself that he was always served first at the dinner table, got the choicest cuts of meat, etc.  and I can’t think of a single time he ever got up from the table to get something for himself. There was always a female, either wife, aged mother-in-law, daughter or female grandchild to fetch it for him.

When I was a child I often heard people say that so and so would turn over in his grave if he knew such and such had happened. After Ms. Patchett’s lecture, when my thoughts turned in this dead people direction I imagined that if we could somehow peer into all the graves of our dead, we’d probably have to search to figure out which way they were lying, there would have been so much spinning going on! Furthermore, I had to wonder how I would explain things, say current events, to my two grandmothers if– let’s say–someone established a weblink or email link or some other John Edward (the psychic)-like communication directly to their graves.

How would I explain to the grandmother who chided me when I suggested we let the Negro help sit at the same long, food-laden dinnertable with the rest of the family and farmhands who helped harvest tobacco, instead of the small table in the kitchen with mason jars to drink their tea from. (I’ll never sit at the same table with n*****s!) that less than 30 days from now we may have elected one to be our president? Even more unimaginable, how would I ever explain Sarah Palin to the other–stay at home–one?

Such a scenario does open my eyes to a lot of creative possibilities! Now if only I can get relief from some of my lethargy as it pertains to writing blog posts . . . !  I’ll have to think on it for awhile. In the meantime I hope someone chances by and reads this who’ll be willing to share their dead people with me. That’ll get me started for sure!

Postscript: Ann Patchett’s other novels include The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft, The Magician’s Assistant, and her latest, Run, published in 2007.

6 thoughts on “What Would Our Dead People Think?

  1. I am the caretaker of the graves of my family members, going back to g-g-g-grandparents who were elderly and died when Lincoln was in office. I never counted the number of graves I faithfully tend…perhaps there are 60 or so. But, I do talk to each ancestor. For instance, I greet Opa Berott with “How are you today?” He replies, “I’m dead!” I like to think we both get a good chuckle out of this.

    I am so curious about the lives of my ancestors. What were they like? Do I resemble any of them? If they met me, what would they think? Would I like them? Then I plot a day for us to meet. “Let’s see, if I got into my Way Back machine, and prorgrammed it for June 1, 1890, how many of my ancestors could I meet that day?” I realize that some of them would be gone by that date and some would not be born. I would need at least three trips in my Way Back machine to satisfy my curiosity.

    I have collected genealogical data on probably 1,500 dead family members, some dating to the 17th century. (Thank you, LDS!) Some of the stories are fascinating. Two members of my Diebold clan were murdered and there was a one suicide in the late 1800s. I have the newspaper clippings of these dramatic events. My mother never forgave me for unearthing the divorce files (public records) for two of her beloved aunts. And Mom really was distraught to learn that her favorite aunt was eight months pregnant when she married an alcoholic bartender in 1905. Again, this was brought to light by snooping through public records.

    So, if you need a good dead relative story, let me know. I am proud to share my family.

  2. What a great comment! I hope it encourages more stories, as I really can’t get enough of them. And pictures. I love old pictures. Anyhow, thank you for starting this off. Anybody else out there with a story or two to share? Remember, it’s the remembering that makes our dead people live.

  3. RYN: Hi Alice. Those are puppets. Check the link I posted about puppets. They are, I believe, in the japanese arts in daily life section….near the Korean patchwork. Thanks for noting,

  4. I love telling stories about my grandparents to my own grandchildren. It is important to me that they understand I had grandparents that I loved as much as they love me … and that they are also their grandparents. I have a couple of books filled with stories about our ancestors and they are such treasures! It is fun to pick out characteristics that have definitely been passed down the ages. All of my daughters, some of my grand daughters, me, my mother, and my grandmother have a mole behind our left ear.

  5. Really enjoyed this post. Found it fascinating about your suggestion on seating with the black workers and your families reaction. (can’t wait to meet you and get more details!)
    Actually, I think of my parents, my Polish grandmother, and two aunts a lot……all of them had such an impact on my life. I really wish my parents were still here to discuss this current election….I have no doubt they both would have been pleased that possibly race will put aside in favor of the best candidate. I would have loved my dad to be here, because he was always so politically involved.
    BUT….have to tell you………Ann Patchette. Are you familiar with her mom? Or did she mention her at all? Her name is Jeanne Ray and she’s also an author. I had the wonderful pleasure to meet her at a writers conference last year in Tenn. And I think you’d enjoy her books, if you haven’t read them yet…..Julie and Romeo and Julie and Romeo Get Lucky. Older character and very humorous. I’ve not read Ann’s work, because I DID check it out, but it looked a bit heavy and literary and I’m into lighter reading these days.

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