My paternal grandmother died a week after my baby girl was born. As a new existence replaced an old one, the circle of life was never more vivid to me as it was then. I was not close to my grandmother and I wish that I had been. I called her granny but have never really appreciated the sentiment that is attached to the title. Retrospect can be a wonderful and yet decidedly pointless exercise but on this occasion I’ll allow my thoughts to run their course. I feel like I have been cheated out of a treasure. A treasure called wisdom: a sacred wisdom that belongs to a grandmother and is relinquished in death as a new matriarch, a grandmother’s successor, assumes the role. My grandmother’s wisdom has been lost in the sands of time due to my own apathy as a granddaughter. I’ve ignored the source and missed the scoop. And my head droops further in shame as I admit that I don’t feel sad about the loss of my grandmother, the person, but rather my grandmother, the wise one.
This yearning I have; the urge to consume the wisdom of the wise, seems somewhat parasitic or even cannibalistic. However, if a family fulfils its purpose by functioning as a unit, the fundamental yearning for wisdom will be satiated in the most natural of ways. What I know about womanhood, wifehood and motherhood is what I have learnt from my mom (and she in turn learnt from her mom) and what I cherish most are the things that my mom has taught me without even realising it – the implicit lessons; a love for books; an exuberance for life; the benefits of healthy eating; an appreciation for history and art; the importance of education… and I could ramble on. These are the lessons that are learnt only by spending time with someone. Time: something my grandmother and I missed out on largely due to familial circumstances. As a child of divorce it would be easy to blame my parents but I have been responsible for my own actions for a long time and my parents are not to blame. In the modern world of today, the notion of generational wisdom seems to have depreciated, and I bought into that for a long time. I think motherhood has changed that for me… perhaps a little too late.
Older societies placed great value in the wisdom to be attained from their elders. This is best described in the folk tales of old, and in particular the earliest recorded oral version of the Little Red Riding Hood tale. In Paul Delarue’s translation of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, recorded by Jack Zipes in The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood, a werewolf kills the girl’s grandmother, placing her “meat in the cupboard and a bottle of her blood on the shelf”. Upon arriving at grandmother’s house, the girl consumes the meat and the blood. The act is symbolic. The tale is describing the natural act of succession; the fact that the girl consumes the grandmother and thus, symbolically, her wisdom. The idea is developed when the girl, upon the instruction of the werewolf, unclothes herself and proceeds to throw her clothing and apron into the fire as she “won’t be needing them anymore.” The symbolism is poignant. The girl replaces the clothed innocence of her girlhood with the worldly nakedness of a woman, symbolising her step into adulthood. The grandmother dies to make way for her granddaughter. Unlike the more familiar versions of the tale from the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, the girl, upon realising that she is lying next to a werewolf, is able to outsmart her enemy and escape. The implication is that it is with the newly acquired wisdom of her grandmother that the girl is able to save herself. According to Robert Darnton, a historian of early modern France, the Little Red Riding Hood folktale can be traced to France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The girls to whom the tale was told would have been conscious of the empowering nature of the grandmother’s wisdom, which enables the transition from girlhood to womanhood. As modern audiences ponder this tale of maturation and evolution, the principles and values of the society it reflects seem sadly foreign in this day and age.
I am the first to acknowledge that unwarranted advice is a royal pain in the posterior. But when I speak of wisdom, I am not referring to the impartation of knowledge. Wisdom is more than knowing. It is a way of life that permeates the mind without the speaking of words. It is the kind of understanding that is gained through experiencing, observing and listening. Wisdom is ethereal in nature. It assumes the form of tacit teachings that are taken for granted until later – until one draws on those teachings, usually without intention. The more those teachings are applied the more conscious they become – they will inevitably be realised, and then consecrated as wisdom. Reflection then occurs, and the value of wisdom comprehended in a moment of illumination. It sounds almost like a religious experience. For some it can be but I like to think of it as a natural process; a natural process that has been disrupted by modern living. Although people are, intrinsically, social beings, ironically social media has assisted in the devaluing of person-to-person relationship in favour of cyber relationship. Through the internet, the world has become smaller and yet strangely detached. It’s as if we have forgotten how to be friends, mothers, fathers, lovers, husbands, wives brothers and sisters. Instead of that that special family recipe being taught in the kitchen or that hilarious tale told around a camp fire, cyberspace has extracted the personality from those family gems; “no thanks gran, I’m too busy. How ‘bout you shoot me an email.” Gag. It’s embarrassing. It’s not even the recipe or the story that we are missing out on, it’s what gran will talk about while she is baking; it’s what grandpa will reveal as he explains the context of the campfire tale.
I write all of this within the most ironic of contexts: I am an expat living in England and most of my family members are continents away. Nonetheless, as the mother of my daughter, I am determined to ensure that family is something that she treasures. It is important that she place value in her role as daughter, granddaughter and niece – not in a self-sacrificing, sentimental way but in a way that will empower her as a woman and teach her confidence and independence. The women in my daughter’s life have so much to teach her and one day, when she assumes responsibility for her own life, she will draw on the wisdom of others; sift through it; accept what she likes and reject what she doesn’t and then she will adapt it to suit her. In order to do this, she will require a wealth of wisdom on which to draw. And that is my job: to make sure that she has that.