My grandmother must’ve been double-caulking all the seams in her life-boat when, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt told the country from his wheelchair that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Either she missed the message, or it came too late to do her any good (she was past thirty then). By the time I knew her, she was far more paralyzed than FDR ever was, and not by polio. She could remember the sinking of the Titanic, and she was certain we were all going down with the ship. —If we ever got on one, that is.
|My maternal grandmother, July, 1949. Photo taken by my Aunt.|
Indeed, it’s as a portrait of an increasingly phobic personality that this picture fascinates me. As she sits there on the shore, poised on the narrow, shifting margin between security and threat, I remember a woman who cowered in the closet during thunderstorms, a woman deeply suspicious of Catholics, a woman uncomfortable with overt gestures of friendship. She was so afraid of death and disaster that she finally fell in love with them, like a proper agoraphobic hypochondriac. I can still hear her obsessively rattling the doorknobs, fidgeting with the deadbolts, and eventually refusing to leave home at all, except to visit her doctor. (Once, in a good year, she managed three unnecessary trips to the hospital with phantom heart failure.)
In this photo, I can see even more of the invisible but irresistible fears that troubled her last years. Stemming tides we couldn’t imagine, she used to mutter to herself and fuss with the kitchen faucets. Quenching flames we couldn’t envision, she used to count to five and fiddle with the knobs on the stove. And in the end, curbing a genuine hunger we couldn’t satisfy, she fought with the nurses and refused to eat during her very last, very necessary, visit to the hospital. Flood, fire, and famine: I see them all in this picture which tries to promise calm journeys and safe moorings. In fact, now I always imagine my grandmother floating backwards out onto the water, drifting off unawares, because—in spite of all her frenzied efforts—it was that first and fundamental plague that got her in the end. She died of congestive heart failure, a kind of drowning one suffers on shore, in a bed, not a boat.