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A Larger Life

Art: Family Tree by Hilario Guttierrez

Art: Family Tree by Hilario Guttierrez

My grandmother had three tall wooden filing cabinets full of other people’s lives. Genealogy was her passion, and inside those drawers were records of deaths and births and detailed family trees. She’d pick up a name from among the Macaulays and another from the Clarks and Harrisons and try to put together the skeleton of that extinct beast, our larger family.

Not content with seeing old names on paper, she spent vacations clearing weeds away from tombstones in abandoned graveyards and looking for houses on back roads where they once stood in 1820. On one such trip, when my father was a child, she had arranged to stay with the descendant of a common ancestor. This woman, who lived on a farm in upstate New York, had married a widower with three daughters, one of whom fell in love with the city kid, my father. It was a love story straight out of a Hindi film, in which six-year-olds routinely form lifelong connections.

Aside from a wife, my father got a larger-than-one-life identity from his mother’s hobby. He’d heard the stories Grandmother Gladys collected of one ancestor who walked twelve miles and planted thirty walnut trees on his hundredth birthday. Then there was another who sent his wife and kids to America on a ship that departed shortly after the Mayflower. With no money for his own passage, he joined his hardworking mates in building a boat; they set out, but never arrived. Because of these tales, my father always carried the feeling that the blood of adventurers, heroes, and dissenters ran through his veins. He felt the largeness of his life until his sixties when breathing and climbing stairs became difficult. Life shrank.

Raised during the Depression by large-spirited parents who would have run through their money even in the best of times, my father worked and saved his way to a decent bank balance. But then he learned that bankers didn’t treat that sum with the respect he thought it deserved. He realized that his job was not the wildly inventive scientific research he’d hoped for, and painting, which he truly loved, had not grown brilliant in the Sunday afternoons he could devote to it. Acceptance that this was it, this was the sum of his life, pained him. Disappointment sat in the room with him; his children could feel it.

If anything lightened the gloom, though, it was having those children around him—or, better still, the grandchildren, whose good grades and raucous discussions convinced him of their brilliant futures. He could accept the limitations that time and circumstances had placed on his life when he felt that he was part of a continuum that ran from fearless pioneers to go-getting children.

This may be the consolation that cheered the declining years of women throughout history—that they were part of a great family, a clan. They nurtured the offspring, nieces and nephews, needy siblings or talented spouses who would carry years of loving care into future victories and successes.

This prospect was never very attractive to the independent-minded woman, of course, any more than it would have been to Hector and Achilles—or Bhima and Arjuna, to take a Hindu example. Heroes had children sometimes, but they didn’t “live through” their children, as feminists would phrase it. They did their thing, and their descendants could brag about it—if any of their children still lived after all the epic battles. But at least their cultures could take inspiration from them and call themselves the spiritual descendants of these iconic men.

The Western tradition seems to have had a fondness for a particularly rugged type of hero—the lone explorer, the adventurer, the inventor who made a million bucks out of something he put together in his garage. If such heroes died bravely but uselessly, left families destitute or grew into cranky old men or women, that part of the story wasn’t emphasized. Young Americans, male and female, yearned to be Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Clara Barton, or Thomas Edison or one of any number of other humans who managed to win a hero’s halo by bravery or genius. They wanted to be Babe Ruth, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, or Jonus Salk. Then they wanted to be Gloria Steinem, Sally Ride, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan, or ANYONE else of distinction.

How many Americans have birthday panic attacks, thinking, “I’m turning thirty (forty, fifty…) and I haven’t accomplished anything. Nobody knows my name. I’m still slaving from pay check to pay check.”

With culture running around the globe by satellite, as it does now, one can find an equal number of depressed residents of Mumbai or Hong Kong wondering why they aren’t rock stars yet, or Bill Gates. Angst has been exported along with MTV and HBO. Is this bad or good? I wouldn’t hazard a guess. Ambition has driven some people to greatness, but so has curiosity, or necessity, or a desire for ease and beauty. Or the sheer accident of being at a certain place, at a certain time. Or courage. Or compassion.

Dissatisfaction may be a potent motivational force, but, by definition, it is not happiness—for those who feel it, or those around them. My father occasionally felt a twinge of happiness when he could forget for a moment the ambitions he had not fulfilled, and feel that he was part of something larger than himself. In his case, this was family. Other people might feel it as community, the interconnected family of mankind—or at least some section of it, defined by religion, language, or national sense of identity. Spiritually inclined Hindus sense it as the Self, with a capital “S,” rather than the ordinary, everyday self that has a name, a biography, and its own personal needs and wants—the Self that is the thread on which the universe is strung. The Self that is felt when the self accepts that it is an ephemeral thing made of chunks of DNA cobbled together, and bits of parental care and teachers’ teachings bundled on a nervous system with memories of experience. When the self accepts that the universe does not begin and end with what it wants.

Accepting is, apparently, the hard part. So few people get to that enlightened state beyond the personal self that Hindu tradition reveres them as being “Jivan mukt,” or free while still alive. Are we all free when we’re dead? Perhaps that’s a little late.

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Author Bio: LUCINDA NELSON DHAVAN first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant immediately after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College. She is still there. After several years devoted to domestic bliss, child rearing, and learning Hindi, she joined the staff of a regional newspaper. She now feels she may have learned enough to write fiction and is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.

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