Monday, October 1, 2012

A summer of loss

The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, Madeleine L'Engle

This is the second of four "Crosswicks Journals" that Madeleine L'Engle published between 1972 and 1989.  I knew L'Engle only as the author of the classic young adult novels A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, and I discovered the first in this series because it had been improperly shelved in the children's section at Half Price Books.  "Crosswicks" is the 200-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut where L'Engle lived for many years with her husband Hugh Franklin and their three children.  When they later moved back to New York City, they spent their summers at Crosswicks with their extended family, including L'Engle's mother, also named Madeleine L'Engle.

Four generations gathered at Crosswicks in the summer of 1971.  When the elder Madeleine arrived, it was immediately clear that she was not well and was getting worse.  Now 90, she had been diagnosed with atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries, which was causing increasing weakness and senility.  Her condition often left her confused, unable to recognize family members, and even hostile, stranded as she believed she was among strangers.  Her daughter Madeleine arranged for her to be cared for in their home, while struggling to accept the reality of her mother's condition.

I know that this is a classic symptom of atherosclerosis, this turning against the person you love most, and this knowledge is secure above my eyebrows, but very shaky below.  There is something atavistic in us which resents, rejects, this reversal of roles. I want my mother to be my mother. And she is not. Not any more. Not ever again.

But if her condition was irreversible, it was not terminal, and she could continue in this state for some time, a prospect that appalled her daughter.

Will I ever be like that, a travesty of a person? It was the last thing she would have wanted, to live in this unliving, unloving manner.  I look up at the sky and shout at the stars, "Take her, God! Take her!

This is not a journal in the sense of a daily record of her mother's condition and the challenges of being a caregiver, though these are part of L'Engle's story.  It is more a meditation on facing death, one's own and that of loved ones.  As L'Engle notes, we face many losses in life.  She herself had experienced the deaths of grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as her father many years before.  With her mother, it was a different kind of loss, not the immediate finality of death, but the erosion of her mother's being, her identity, and of their relationship: "I want my mother to be my mother."

One of the ways that L'Engle tried to cope with this loss was by trying to understand, to capture the reality of her mother, even as she was slipping away.  Her narrative becomes part biography and autobiography, in sections titled "The Mother I knew" and "The Mother I Did Not Know."  As she acknowledged,

The mother of my childhood and adolescence and very young womanhood existed for me solely as mother, and I suppose it is inescapable that for a long time we know our parents only as parents, that their separate identity as full persons in their own right unfolds only gradually, if at all.

She considers her parents' marriage, complicated by her father's service in the First World War, where he was gassed, from which he never fully recovered.  Even in her childhood, she was aware of strains in their family, despite the care her parents took to shield her.  She looks back at her mother's childhood, in a small town in Florida, tracing her ancestry back to the earliest days of European settlement.  L'Engle clearly took great pride in her family heritage, but I found myself confused as she moved back and forth between generations and branches (a family tree would have helped).  Over the years her family owned plantations and the slaves that worked them ("servants" in the familiar evasive language).  L'Engle insists that they were benevolent masters and later good neighbors to the freed people.  At the same time she details the suffering of her family in the Civil War and Reconstruction period, with much of their property lost in the conflicts, without acknowledging what that property was, or the suffering endured by African Americans both in slavery and in freedom during these years.  But then she was writing in the early 1970s; perhaps a later generation would tell a different story.

Finally, this book is also a meditation on faith.  As a Christian, a believer, L'Engle struggles to reconcile what her faith teaches her about loss, death, resurrection, with the reality of what is happening to her mother, and what will happen to her in turn.  She struggles to find God in her mother's suffering, in her own pain; to find meaning; to affirm her belief in "a loving God who will not abandon or forget the smallest atom of his creation."

This was not an easy book to read, but a rewarding one in the end.  L'Engle writes movingly of parents and children, of her own family.  I enjoyed her account of her childhood and adolescence, following her birth in 1918 in New York City, including her years in a Swiss boarding school and later at Smith College (she herself died in 2007).  Her mother is a fascinating figure, who led an adventurous life travelling around the world with her journalist husband, and faced life as a widow with dignity and courage, and found joy in it.  Perhaps her daughter idealizes her small-town Southern childhood, but it is a lovely warm account.

This book also resonated deeply with me because I lost my own mother last year, after many years of debilitating illness.  "I do not know how to say goodbye. All I can say, within my heart, is, 'I love you, Mother.'"


  1. I am always interested in books about parent-child relationships, particularly when dealing with loss, so this sounds like it would be perfect for me. I am also intrigued to read more of L'Engle's thoughts on faith. I had never heard of the Crosswick Journals but I think I will have to track them down!

  2. Claire, I've only read this one, though I have all four. The third, The Irrational Season/ is organized around the liturgical year and seems to be meditations on faith & practice. The fourth, Two-Part Invention, is about her marriage and her husband's death. I've moved both up the TBR piles.

  3. I think this would be tough to read yet comforting too. With my mom having 2 surgeries in as many years and what is termed a 'silent heart attack' a few months ago I have had to face the mortality of my parents and honestly realize that they are aging and that they will not be here forever.
    It is so hard to see a parent suffer and know that you have no control. The last sentence of your post broke my heart - all we can do, in the end, is love our parents. We can't stop them from leaving us.
    I'm glad to see someone writing about this so honestly.

  4. So many of my friends have faced this loss too - or the challenges of caring for their aging parents. Madeleine L'Engle was an only child, so she had to go through that on her own - I'm very grateful for my siblings.

    But this book isn't all sadness - there is also joy and love, and great stories!

  5. I really liked this book a lot too, although I didn't have the personal connection to it that you do. The other Crosswicks books are just as good. I'm particularly fond of The Irrational Season. To be honest, I like these better than L'Engle's children's books, which I think I came to too late in life.

  6. Teresa, I'm thinking of saving The Irrational Season to read for Advent (hopefully not Lent, but it could happen). Now that I've "met" Hugh, I'm interested to learn more about him and their marriage, so that will probably be the next read. For some reason, the first book hasn't really clicked for me.

    With her children's books, I've only read the first two, I had no idea there were so many & in different series.

  7. I've always wanted to read these...thank you for the reminder!

  8. My pleasure, Audrey - I wish I'd found them sooner!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!