Tuesday, 26 June 2012

genetic imprints and other family musings

Here's a picture of me as a baby in 1969. My aunt Loraine is holding me, and my maternal grandparents are sitting on either side of her. My mom is sitting on the floor.

Here is a picture of my daughter Savianna from a couple of days ago:

I think the resemblance between us is striking. We have the same sticky outy ears. We have deep set almond shaped eyes. Sometimes when I gaze into her face I have this weird uncanny feeling. I used to experience that with my son too. I could never quite figure it out, why when I gazed into my child's face I would experience both an unsettling and comfortable feeling. I would simultaneously say to myself, I know you, I've always known you, I recognize you as you, new, my baby, but I also feel that we have met before- the "always known you" part is the part that unsettles: the flashes of images of other family members- my brother, my cousins, my parents and grandparents. These are faces that I have gazed at all my life, that are as familiar to me as my own. And here those family features appear fleetingly, uncannily, again in this new little person. I feel the same rush of uncanny familiarity when I look at the images of my mom, my aunt and grandparents in that photo.

I just finished watching hundreds of short 8 mm home movies that my uncle had converted to a DVD, most of which were filmed between 1959 and 1965, of my dad's family: my paternal grandparents, my great Baba and Gido, my uncles when they were in their teens and early 20s, my dad. Even a couple of brief images of my mom when she was about 19, and of my maternal Grandma. At times it was emotionally overwhelming. 

My mom was just a kid and the traces of her now are evident then- fresh faced, smiling, pretty, optimistic, fun loving and funny. There is a sense that that time in everyone's life was good. It hadn't been marred by too many terrible losses yet. The future was unfolding in a welcoming way before them, as her generation came of age in the less trying times of the late 1950s and 1960s.

In the movies, my Granny Lena Armstrong was about the same age as I am now. It was a rare and precious gift to peek, if only for a brief, silent moment, into that era, that time in my family's life before I was born. I was also able to see my Grandad, who died a few years before I was born. I had never really seen many pictures of him before, and so I was overwhelmed by this rare opportunity to get to know him. The emotional effect of what I saw on those movies was contained mainly in a couple of brief scenes with my grandparents: seeing them interact, smile at one another, dote on each other with little touches of a hand to an arm, a quick glance, obviously in love- dancing at what looked like a New Year's eve party, and sharing a loving kiss. I had never thought of my Granny in that way before, as a loving wife. I knew she was a romantic at heart, but this was a side of her that had pretty well faded away by the time I knew her. Because my Grandad died relatively young, that phase of her life was over before I was born, but not long over, and part of the melancholy, almost perpetual widowhood I had come to associate with my Granny's personality may have been more accurately attributed to her recent mourning. For, in these movies. she smiled a lot. She was very poised. Apparently she practiced walking with a tray and books on her head, and as a result, she walked like a queen. By the time of my earliest memories of my Granny, she had been suffering ill- health in the form of repeated heart attacks. She was quite stationary and fairly weak, fragile, needing constant medical supervision and medication. Nevertheless, she lived to be 96. Not bad considering she had somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 heart attacks, non- Hodgkin's lymphoma and an inoperable brain tumor. But for whatever reasons, and perhaps this has more to do with her generation and the expectations of social behavior, these rare intimate moments are rarely played out for grandchildren. It was that intimacy that caught me. I wept for a moment as I gasped at these ancestors, young, vibrant and in love.  

I don't know this side of my family as well as I could, or should. I feel a little closer now. I see the shared genetic footprints- the shapes of eyes, the mannerisms, even the eccentricities. I experienced a certain devilish mirth to see that one of my Granny's peculiar habits of wearing a turban had started at least that early in her life and continued through the 80s, and probably for a time into the 90s. I giggled a little at that, as that little eccentricity opened up a flood of childhood memories in Saskatoon.

I only wish there were a few more movies, a few more private glimpses into that world so that I could linger just a little longer in the footprints of that era. My Granny passed away on September 21, 2011.

xo Jo


Marlene said...

I love this post. And I know just what you mean. For me it's looking at old photos from his side of the family -- I can't believe how well I know the faces of these people I've never met, because they are my children's faces too.

Jolene said...

Thanks for sharing that Marlene. It is fascinating. I was once told by someone I'd never met before that I was the living image of my great-grandmother. She remembered my ggm when my ggm was more or less the same age as I was at the time. This lady that told me this was just a little girl when she knew my ggm but was in her 80s when she told me this. I was so happy to hear that.