Thursday, July 19, 2007
There was an obituary in the local paper the other day about a woman who was a teacher, social advocate and churchwoman, and who had done many good deeds.
While I respect and admire those good deeds, it was the details of her past, and those of her mother's, too, that fascinated me. And then there was a detail at the end of the obituary that truly made me think and wonder and ponder this person's life. Why somebody felt it necessary to include this (very personal) detail, I'm not sure -- unless they found it as intriguing and, for what it implies, as poignant, as I did.
Her mother had been a "Bernardo" or "Home" child, sent to Canada to (supposedly) be given a better life than they would have in England (if you've read ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, I believe this is the sort of child Marilla doesn't want when she says no "Home" boys for her). Her mother had actually lived in a poorhouse, but perhaps living there might have been better than being shipped off, at 10 years old, to work as a servant, and no doubt a poorly paid one at that, for the obit mentions living on cheap food and never being allowed to use the indoor toilet.
Later, Mother ran afoul of a handsome, slick salesman who got her pregnant and abandoned her. Many years later, her daughter met her father. By then, he had become an obese sot. (I'm reminded of Uncle Neddy in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.)
But back to Mother, unwed and alone. She couldn't look after the baby, so her daughter was raised in a series of foster homes until they were reunited when her daughter was fifteen. Mother, working as a live-in domestic, had never lost touch, although it seems visits were few and far between.
Later, Daughter suffered depression, but nevertheless got her degree and earned a masters in English, with honors, and won a prize for an essay. Then she turned her energies to social work and doing those many good deeds.
She never married. She herself said that her childhood and a lack of experience forming relationships made it difficult for her to do so. She also believed she was plain.
And then we come to that last poignant detail: As per her request, only men washed her body before burial.
The first time I read this, I thought that revelation was incredibly intrusive, even if the person to whom it applied was dead. Why do strangers need to know about that request?
Upon reading this now, I have tears in my eyes. Why? Because it implies to me that since she was unable to know physical intimacy with a man during her life, she wanted something of that even after death.
This is the sort of detail and conjecture that will stay in my mind for, well, years. I may not remember all the details of the lives of these two women, but I'll never forget or stop wondering about that last request.
This is one way my characters form -- from a story or a detail that takes root in my imagination and grows into a person who may not resemble much of the original by the time I'm done, but nevertheless owes his or her genesis to such a seed.