We are all, and none of us, survivors
Like everyone else, you have a lineage that stretches unbroken right back to the first bacterium wriggling in the primordial ooze. Why then would you think that anybody else has a better pedigree than yours?
Regardless of your roots, your wealth, and your influence, you’re every bit as important as anybody else on the planet. You might not have inherited a multinational conglomerate or be in line of royal succession, but you’re a survivor with at least 3.5 billion years behind you.
It’s humbling to think this, but it’s also deeply empowering.
As Bob Dylan said, even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked. We all haul around these comical and disagreeable bodies. Everything else is just clothing — and contrary to the old adage, the clothes do not make the man.
Like everyone else, the infinitesimal part of that 3.5 billion year lineage I know anything about — in my case, merely a couple of generations — is colorful, because all life is colorful.
In my novel Biome, my character Reyes Sadovy mischievously suggests that women play no part in biological evolution. Needless to say, that’s not my own opinion, and it is certainly untrue when it comes to social evolution. I myself was shaped by two grandmothers and a mother. I don’t believe the men in my family are ever anything but appendages to the women, and I’m no exception.
My own wife is far stronger and fiercer than I am. My only role in life appears to be to mix in a little genetic temperament to her strong and fierce children. You can read more about this in my post Make mine a double.
My paternal grandmother was a force of life that dominated my childhood. I remember vividly small, important things. For example, she was a heroic smoker. Every memory of her is fuggy with cigarette smoke. Her cooking had a distinctive tobacco taste, since she would let the ash fall wherever it would. I watched her once folding it into her cake mixture.
I haven’t smoked a cigarette since I was a teenager.
I remember the smell of my grandmother’s favorite food, which was fried sheep’s brains on toast. She owned a farm, and I would often help herd cattle and pigs up through the village to the abattoir and butcher’s shop opposite her house. The best meat was still steaming in that butcher’s window.
I haven’t eaten meat since I was a teenager.
I remember the wink she’d give me as she stirred a second heaped tablespoon of sugar into the strong West Country cider that was my staple beverage from the moment I was weaned, since the spring that fed her house wasn’t clean enough for kids to drink. Looking back, I am firmly convinced I spent the entire first eleven years of my life inebriated.
I haven’t — oh, but now I’m lying to myself.
I remember how she never once tried to kiss me, as grandmothers usually do. And how I loved her for that.
When she was a girl, this grandmother fell in love with the right man — poor eyesight invalidated him from World War 2 — who soon became the wrong man. He was billeted to a munitions factory in Birmingham, where the young couple found themselves black to the roots with steel works grime and coal dust. She fell ill with what was diagnosed as cancer.
Eventually, the way she told it, the doctors attempted a radical experiment to try to save her life: they cut her open from throat to groin. She had the scar to prove it, or at least to prove something. When they peeled her open, she said, they found her entire body was black with cancer.
She was plainly long past saving. So they sewed her up and sent her home to die.
My grandmother lived fifty more years, and bore eight children, of which my father was the youngest. All eight of them are alive as I write this, and all eight of them had large families of their own.
Fifty more years of smoking, sheep’s brains on toast, and unclean water. Plainly, she didn’t give a crap.
I think she might have shrugged the whole world away — cast off illness like a rejected scrap of the knitting she was always busy on to make clothes for me — except you can’t, in the end, be immortal. A stroke took her when I was in my teens.
While my paternal grandmother represents fecundity and the determination of life to survive and prosper against all odds, my maternal grandmother represents submission and death.
She also had a large brood of children: six boys and my mother, also her youngest. But this grandmother had something horrible in her genes. She had Von Hippel-Lindau disease.
Von Hippel-Lindau disease robbed her of all her sons, one after the other. It left only her daughter unaffected, so thankfully the disease was not passed down to me. My mother would tell me about the agony of growing up and watching every one of her elder brothers sicken and die. This is her memory of childhood: a succession of wastings and deaths. Every brother’s life was extinguished before he turned thirty.
I know the genetics don’t work this way, but I think of my grandmother trying again and again to have a girl, and only succeeding on the seventh attempt.
This solitary survivor didn’t have Von Hippel-Lindau disease. She had four children of her own, and then died of breast cancer instead.
I have life behind me, then, and heartbreak. Just like you. I am proud of my two grandmothers, and of all the other women in my life. They shape my thinking far more than the moral pronouncements of priests, the ranting of dictators, the self-importance of the self-important, and certainly far, far more than whatever ermine-clad buffoon is on the throne of mine or my wife’s respective countries right now.
These are the people I admire. What about you?