A writer friend, Grace Elting Castle wrote a column in the local paper last week about how we ought to document our experiences during this COVID-19 crisis for our children, grandchildren and the generations that follow. Journal, write letters, and save newspaper articles, she says. Your children’s children’s children will want to know what it was like. She says she wishes she had asked her grandparents more about their lives.
Well, I have been thinking the same thing about my own grandparents. In fact I wrote a whole book called Stories Grandma Never Told sparked by what I didn’t know about my grandmother’s experiences growing up Portuguese-American in California. I interviewed a whole bunch of Portuguese women to get their stories, and I’m glad I did. Many of them have since passed away. But own grandmother’s stories died with her.
Not only did I not ask about her Portugueseness. It never occurred to me to ask about the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic that was so like the COVID-19 crisis we’re living through now. All four of my grandparents were teens or young adults at that time, and they could have told me. They could have told all of us. Maybe we would have learned something. But they never talked about it, and we didn’t ask. We all assumed it would never happen again.
What does this have to do with childlessness? Those of us who don’t have children have no one to save all this information for. Do we? Certainly no children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Maybe descendants of our siblings’ kids will be interested later on. Maybe not. So what do we do with our stories, just let them die with us?
I’m a writer. I can’t do that. I feel compelled to keep a record. I’m writing, I’m saving information, I’m documenting the whole thing. I’m not planning to write a book about it. God knows we’ll be drowning in coronavirus books in a year or two. But I’m taking notes.
I grieve the loss of descendants. I want there to be someone down the genealogical line with my name and my genes who wants to know what it was like, who will treasure every scrap of information she can get about what it was like for me and others during this time. I want that so bad, but I can’t have it. And yes, I know that if I had children and grandchildren, they might not be interested at all.
Going through a box of my parents’ things the other night, I came upon a tiny prayer book published in 1922. I think it was my grandmother’s. It’s a beautiful thing with lovely illustrations. Who will want it when I go? I placed it with my other keepsakes from dead loved ones, including a Portuguese prayer book that my childless great-aunt left behind. It’s so old I wonder if one of her parents brought it from Portugal in the 1800s. Maybe that little Portuguese book offers an answer. Aunt Edna’s book made its way to me, and I love it. Where it goes from here is not up to me.
I’m not sure who I’m saving my coronavirus stories for. My niece and nephew? Friends? Strangers? My fans (hah)? Maybe they will go to a museum or be archived online. Maybe a researcher or another writer will be overjoyed someday to find my accounts of this time. All I can do it write it. What happens after I die is not up to me.
God help us, whatever we leave behind will go where it goes and we have no control over that.
Grace Castle is the author of A Time to Wail, a Native American novel set here in Oregon. It captures some of her family history. I wish her column had included a paragraph or two that might begin, “And if you don’t have children . . .” but I guess we have to fill that part in for ourselves.
How are you doing during this time of fear and isolation? My neighbor and her daughter are coming outside every night at 8 p.m. and howling like wolves. They are joining a growing group of howlers across the country expressing their frustration as well as their support for healthcare workers and first responders. I have joined them a couple times and plan to do it tonight. What the heck. Go out and howl. See if anyone howls back. Awwwoooooooo!
I welcome your comments.