Summer of the Great Grandmother tells the story of Madeleine L’Engle’s last summer with her mother. It’s the second of L’Engle’s four “Crosswicks Journals,” but since I read them out of order it was the last one that remained for me.
L’Engle is usually classed as a Christian writer, but she is the type of Christian who is often questioning and struggling and acknowledging the mysteries. She’s not someone I read to be instructed, especially. She’s the kind of author who comes alongside and affirms the real experience of living with its griefs and joys and its refusal, in the midst of it, to resolve into a neat inspirational narrative.
Her mother, in this story, has ceased to remember most of who she is. She is more child than mother, and she comes to spend the summer as usual with L’Engle’s family at their 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse, Crosswicks. Despite having a houseful of helpful, loving people, it’s a difficult summer that finds L’Engle filling her journal with questions and conflicting emotions. She feels strongly that it’s important for her mother to be among family rather than at a nursing home, and one of her recurring struggles is with a society in which more and more of the elderly suffer from dimentia, yet there is less and less of a humane culture to support or value them. “Obviously, nursing homes have not caused senility in the elderly,” she writes,
but when grandmother or great grandmother continued to live with the larger family, to be given meaning because she could at least stir the soup or rock the baby, the climate for growing old and dying was more healthy than it is today. I cannot reproduce that climate for Mother… All I can do is try not to isolate her; is to hold her when she is afraid; is to accept her as she is, as part of this family, without whom we would be less complete.
She spends a lot of time remembering, trying to get at who her mother really was. There is plenty of delving into the deep past of her family’s history, some of which interested me and some of which didn’t. It did make me realize how little I know of my own family’s past. And it provides an opportunity to think in a sustained way about some of the issues many of us are bound to face as parents age.
While reading, I got curious. What had happened to L’Engle since the accounts in the Crosswicks Journals? My brief tour of the internet made me a little sad. When she died in 2007, this woman so passionate about keeping her own mother out of a nursing home was living in one. Her husband, as I already knew from Two-Part Invention, had died of cancer. Her son had died at age 47 for reasons not spelled out anywhere very clearly. Her daughter and husband had divorced.
I’m not sure how to make sense of the contrast between these facts and the impression I had of a rather idealized family life in all four Crosswicks Journals. All I know is that L’Engle herself affirmed over and over that the most difficult experience takes place within a sphere of purposeful, loving divine activity. Nothing within or beyond her own published record prompted her to revise this view.