The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead. – As I Walked Out One Evening, W.H Auden
I took the featured photo this summer in Rotterdam just before my family left The Netherlands for good to settle in England. The tree sculpture behind my daughter is called Elevazione or Elevation in English.
The word suspended comes to mind too. Third culture children are often described as being raised among worlds. I cannot take back my past and my husband, who chose an Iberian second name for our daughter, has long been out of his element but there was a reason we came back to The British Isles. I’ll let the author Robert Macfarlane explain;
My daughter’s favourite game at the moment is playing grandma with me. She piles some stuffed animals into a stroller and knocks on the door of whatever room I’m in.
“Oh hello Grandma!” she trills. “I’ve come with my babies. We are staying for tea,”
I have never spoken about my grandmother with her. That’s because I don’t have to.
“Can I play with your grandma’s spoons and the teacups she left you?” my daughter asked a few months ago.
It silenced me and I took some time to answer.
“You may play with the spoons but not the teacups,” I told her
“Thank you. She was in my dream with the Three Bears. We had tea together,”
The teacups I keep high and out of reach, always on display. There are the only things I have of her. I rescued them at the last minute for I was not at all considered important in regards to her belongings. I sobbed and sobbed at the front pew of the church when she passed away.
“You couldn’t stop crying,” my father remarked
I ignored him as I did when he was cracking jokes in the funeral car. I had asked for years to be taken to Saltburn by the Sea where she grew up. I asked to be there when he decided what to do with her ashes.
“He got rid of them,” my mother would later say
“I don’t understand,”
“But I wanted to be there,” I said
“Too late now,” my mother said
Checkmate? It doesn’t matter to me anymore. Any obstruction played by my parents is irrelevant. The more a person is blocked, the stronger they unblock themselves, that’s if they choose to as I have. The writer Hilary Mantel asks in her recent Reith Lectures;
…should we police our imaginations when they go out by night and stray into the hazy border zone of myth and collective memory? St Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place…
My grandmother must have communicated with my daughter in the same way that my daughter did with me in the womb, a flap of butterfly wings, that quickening which means the first waves of life. It was a visitation. Indeed my sister remarked only a few weeks ago.
“Our girls will never know women like Gran,”
“No,” I responded, sadly
Ayaan Hirsi Ali described her grandmother as being from The Iron Age. She is far from Somalia now but she recalls how her grandmother would repeatedly ask her;
“Who are you?”
Little Ayaan would have to recite the names of her ancestors. Today, she is a formidable woman who knows exactly who she is and where she comes from. She is no doormat. I ask my daughter similar questions.
“Who are you?”
“Where are you?”
“Why are you here?”
It turns out that this urge I have for family history is founded in research connected to emotional and spiritual health. You can throw the baby out with the bathwater but in the end all comes full circle. You can never escape who you are.