My Grandparents and Me

My father (Francis Maplestone Gray) once shared a surprising story with me (or perhaps I only heard it through my sister, who was more connected with him than I was, and who in general—perhaps because she herself became a parent decades before I did—has been our family’s custodian of roots in the past. She even took a trip to England to connect with our surviving, extended family there. However the story may have come to me, it feels like a symbol for my own sense that I don’t know much about the larger ‘reality’ that produced me.

This story, which seems significant and pertinent to my own psyche, was about my father’s grandfather and how my father only met this man once in his life—and on that occasion assumed he was just some old acquaintance of his father’s.

Let me explain, or at least place this fragment of our family story in some kind of context. Apparently my father (Francis Gray) saw his father (William Gray) sitting with an older man, at the University Club in Montreal; and at that sole encounter, my father wasn’t introduced to that stranger.

Apparently my grandfather had no desire to invite into his Canadian family the father who had abandoned his family in Wales, leaving them with no means of support. The story continues that he then immigrated to Canada on his own at a very early age (no older than 14 and perhaps only 12), in order to make money, which he sent back to his mother in Wales to support her and his younger siblings.

I didn’t know my grandfather well, although I was probably already about 12 myself when he passed away. I could recognize that he adored my sister, who of his three grandchildren was the only girl. He would write her poems with playful drawings alongside the verses. I have the impression, when I look back on his infrequent visits to Montreal (coming from Victoria, BC—where he lived in retirement, and where my wife and I will be flying tomorrow), that I was a morose kid, awkward around adults, in whom I didn’t take much interest—neither in them personally nor in the world they could have opened for me. Looking back, I see this as a more general isolation from the larger community—probably my defining characteristic in those days. Too bad I didn’t know how to be more open to the sources of warmth and knowledge that might have been available if I had taken a step toward them. But I was like a spider, spinning a web of unacknowledged longing, hoping that someone would step inside.

There are two films based on Stanislaw Lem’s book, “Solaris”. In at least one of the films there is a final, haunting image. The protagonist, a psychiatrist whose wife committed suicide back on Earth, has been persuaded to take the trip to Solaris because one of his friends is going crazy–along with everyone else on the ship that is orbiting this ocean planet.

By the final episode of this film, we already know that this strange planet is able to create physical ‘realities’ based on the deepest psychic imaginings of the humans orbiting above. These ‘realities’ include a replica of the psychiatrist’s dead wife, who has just killed herself again–after she learns that her husband, in horror, launched an earlier reincarnation of her into the vacuum of space.

However, now he has fallen in love with this second version and when she kills herself, he then kills himself. (It just occurs to me that this could be “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending.)

In this haunting final scene–a kind of coda; a closing, symphonic theme that gives way to silence—he and his wife have been reunited back on Earth in the house they shared there, now newly aware and accepting of the lives that they have given up. One imagines that, since Solaris must have made this possible, there can now be a kind of virtual eternity in this reunion, made real by their rediscovered love for one another. But as the camera pans out into the surrounding residential neighborhood, something shocking appears on the screen. Against the expectations that have been engendered by those 30-second, virtual U-tube voyages from the small to the vast reaches of space (from neighborhood rooftops to galaxies becoming pinpoints of light) then back down again—this film’s cosmic expansion comes up short. After a few moments, moving out above the suburb in which they lived, the ocean world of Solaris appears on all sides of the land’s perimeter. And we realize that this is all that Solaris has been able to pull out of the memories of these two deceased human beings. We are left unsure about this new balance between the local and the global, between the personal and the universal.

Perhaps I’m not the only one who feels that my own vision (in both the time and space dimensions)—surrounding and supporting my known ‘reality’–is quite similar to this image. When I try to move out into a larger field, in which my individual life seems grounded, I don’t find many details—although I sometimes sense a comforting, oceanic presence.

As part of a family (a node in a particular lineage), I find that something like the amorphous ocean world of Solaris, mysteriously conjuring up images and surrogate realities, appears on the outskirts of my own certainties and doubts.

My known family tree, at least in terms of any physical contact and emotional encounters that back it up, stops with my grandparents. Beyond my parents and sister, those antecedents seem more ocean-like than earth-bound. Both of my mother’s parents died before she came to Canada as a sixteen year old; my father’s mother is known to me only in a photograph taken during what may have been her only visit to Greenfield Park, a suburb of Montreal which our family left when I was four years old, moving to another suburb on the west end of the island. The only grandparent I remember, now and then visiting Pointe Claire (like Haley’s comment cycling around the Sun), was Dad’s father.

I wonder if there would have been any intersection between him and me if our lives could have been shifted to align our ages. I certainly find his life—seen from a distance—impressive.

He was honored with awards, and with the central exhibit in a mining museum in Nova Scotia, for his contribution to Canadian mining safety (we had a collection of miner’s lamps in our house growing up). He was editor of the Canadian Mining Journal and was awarded an honorary doctorate–impressive for someone who may not have attended school past his early teenage years.

But, alas, the main way I seem to have followed in his footsteps is that I never introduced my children to their grandfather, in my case because I waited until both my parents were dead before becoming a father myself.

(I’ve heard that Dad’s middle name, “Maplestone”, was in honor of Grandfather’s adopted home, Canada, whose flag bears the symbol of the maple leaf: the land which provided the touchstone he reached on the other side of the Atlantic).

4 comments to “My Grandparents and Me”
  1. Before this, you have shared yourself as a measured and thoughtful philosopher. Now I meet the mystic — a subtle and sensitive man who moves from the mundane to the mysterious with intuitive ease.

  2. Hi Michael,
    You remind me of me… digging among the rapidly decomposing and regenerating of my own tangle of roots… I spent a passel of hours putting myself in the place of those he came before… imagining what they knew that informed their behavior… like, “So that’s why my father ignored me!” He wanted to be amorous with my mother, while I was prattling on about the minutia within my three foot world existing fully involved between my head, and the floor. I look back and think of myself…

    “He had a photographic memory but it was never fully developed.” { :-0

  3. Of course, the good humor of my remembrance in no way diminishes the your earnest archeology… keep going! 👍

  4. Thanks, Kip. What a welcome image of myself as a person who can both ponder and wonder, weave and be sensitive to the creation which needs no tinkering from me.

    Thanks, David. Being aware that you have delved into memory–both as a record of our time on Planet Earth and as a magical faculty through which we can make that time more valuable–I appreciate your sharing something of your own journeys of rememberance.

    Michael

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