Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Paul Auster and Ancestors You'll Never Know

Paul Auster
A few years ago, I fell in love with the work of Paul Auster, novelist, memoirist, screenwriter, translator, etc..  It was kind of an accident.  I'd read something about him; then the Plain Dealer let me review his new novel Brooklyn Follies in January 2006.  To prepare for that review, I read all of his previous books--and since then have pretty much kept up with him (and reviewed a couple of them, as well).

I've also seen the films he's directed--here's an IMDB link to those: Auster films

And last week, Kirkus sent me his new memoir to review--Winter Journal--a book which I loved.  He's getting older (about my age!) and is beginning to have winter thoughts ...

Anyway, a number of his sentences went straight from the page into my heart, but this one reminded me of something I've thought about a lot.  (Note: the entire book is in 2nd person--not something you see every day.)  "You can go back only as far as your grandparents, with some scant information about your great-grandparents on your mother's side, which means that the generations that came before them are no more than blank space, a void of conjecture and blind guesswork" (115-16).

Occasionally, I used to do an exercise with my students.  "How many of you can name both parents?"  (Duh.)  "All four grandparents?"  (Quite a few hands.)  "All eight great-grandparents?"  (Rarely ever a single hand.)  "All sixteen great-great-grandparents ?"  Never a hand.

And that is only a few generations back.

And what objects in your home belonged to any of them? (Most went back only a generation or so.)

 I have my great-grandfather's cuckoo clock and quite a few things from my grandmother, including her favorite wicker rocker, its arms worn smooth and white by her arms.

I knew three grandparents, two great-grandparents, and I "know" others from family research.  It's easier to do that, these days, what with Ancestry.com and so on.

But think of it: from sixteen great-great-grandparents to thirty-two great-great-great grandparents, and the numbers accelerate with the doubling as you move back through time.  Soon ... vast, unthinkable numbers.

But consider the vast improbability of your being here.  The prehistoric creatures who survived natural disasters, illness, injury, war ... infancy.  ALL of them--all those countless thousands, every single one of them--had to survive for you to be drawing breath this lovely Ohio late-winter day.  Pieces of them are in you, anonymous microscopic pieces that may account for your eyes, your temperament, your height, your hair, your intelligence, your cruelty, your sense of humor, your compassion, your selfishness, your ability to play the piano, pick up a scorching grounder, draw a face, love and be loved.  At least one of those pieces is a ticking time bomb, the one that will send you to join in eventual anonymity those numberless nameless thousands who made you possible.

Isn't that a happy thought?

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1 comment:

  1. It's not only the ancestors--no way (unless a cache of letters & journals shows up & for me they'll be in some unreadable Swedish dialect) to know them. But I think of all those living now with whom I share those ancestors. Merely going back two or three generations, the numbers of living offspring begin to increase exponentially. What could I learn about myself that all of us is carrying buried not only in DNA but in cultural memory? Theoretically I could know them (they might even be my neighbors . . .) but the logistics are formidable. A family reunion with a few hundred thousand attending?