Of mosaics and my grandma

My dad's mother, Edna, looked like this in 1940. I've cropped her from a photo where she stood beside her mom. In front of the older woman posed my dad and his sister. They were preschoolers. They knew Edna as a wonderful visitor. Their grandma was "Mother" to them.

In this photo Edna looks like she's giving her photographer the finger. My great aunt explains that she had badly cut her middle digit on a broken jar. Doctor's labors saved the finger, but it remained stiff. She could no longer play the violin.

Interesting, though, because Edna had taken a bird-flipping stance toward society. She'd left her first husband while pregnant with my dad and would go on to strew behind her marriages, affairs, and eight more children.

Reflections on Edna resurfaced lately. I've decided human beings are reasonable. In general, anyway. Many times I've heard myself telling someone my grandma possessed a brilliant mind but no common sense. Looking at culture now, though, I'm rethinking how life amongst us on the planet happens. Were Grandma Edna's sensibilities simply far too common?

The other evening I wandered the quirky off-campus retail store where my daughter works. The sound system played a stale pop tune in which a man and woman duet regarding the possibility of spending the night together. Who needs tomorrow? they croon, as if recognizing that sleeping together tonight might incite future complications. They don't love each other, but they've both been lonely, so apparently they decide to go ahead and have sex, whatever tomorrow may bring.

I paused in front of a display for "dirty girls" bath products, struck by the song's outdatedness. No one worries anymore about spending the night with someone they don't love. On TV shows I've perused this season, sex is part of checking one another out. The dorks are the couples who commit big-time after only a few nights together.

Back in my pop culture days, an aura of hesitation and even wonder still surrounded sex outside marriage. It was okay to do it, of course, but the act carried a weight - and could carry one away - in a sense that I see has now disappeared.

For Grandma Edna in the 1930s and 40s, society generally and specifically (legally) discouraged extra-marital romances. Taboos stood solid. A rebel like Edna found herself receiving electro-shock therapy at a mental institution. Yup. It happened. To continually swim against the cultural tide, a person must have lacked fundamental pieces of common sanity. Or perhaps (as I'm beginning to wonder), they grasped with tenacity a certain logical reasoning.

In her early eighties, riding around town with me as I took her shopping and visiting, Grandma Edna reminisced about going to the movies as a young woman. The silver screen entranced her. Dashing, romantic men wooed fashionable females. Some women were flighty, but many stood up for themselves, capably tossing witticisms back at the guys.

Edna glimpsed independence along with the romance in those movies. She also lived with her own life's experiences, some tragic, many that can't be known. Somehow it all combined to build her philosophy. She reasoned, I think, that there's nothing wrong with following desires that we've played up to one another as noble and beautiful - the longings of intense, initial-stage love. Why should she be denied their repetition, just because living out her movie scripts brought children into the world and caused society matrons discomfort? Edna became a pioneer of grabbing the gusto.

What Grandma Edna and others fostered, aided extremely well by technologized birth control and abortion, has become our culture's heritage. A legacy in which each member of society's goal is an ideal relationship, built mosaic-style amid endless intimate dabblings.

The appeal is not new; I've felt its pull, and I've read some ancient stories... Mm, hm, been around awhile. Only now it's on billboards as well as beneath covers in two-bit motels. Looking at life in general these days, through lenses of emotion and flesh and neediness and availability, to live from bed to bed seems reasonable.

In fact, to borrow a term from Kierkegaard, people naturally take offense at persons stuck in the mindset that sex is exclusively for marriage. To say someone has made immature choices while seeking to navigate relational terrain is fine; everyone screws up. But to insist that any motion in a sexual direction is wrong outside of a marital commitment. Ahem. That offends most people.

As I understand it, Kierkegaard - great cultural offender he - proposed that beliefs and ideas surrounding Christ will ever look unreasonable to us. Only when something different takes hold of me can I gaze at life with an "infinite" view. Not a view that abandons reason (as some have thought K. was saying we must do), but a perspective dramatically realigned.

I'm sure Grandma Edna would have liked Kierkegaard. As far as I know she never read him. In her sixties she took community college classes. She'd returned to her home town, cared to the end for her ailing mom, and become serious about her own version of Christianity.

Though Edna irritated people and made weird decisions the rest of her days, and though I could never peer inside her heart, I've guessed her thoughts on some things changed. Did she go to her grave believing she always made the best choices she could? Maybe. Satisfied to have pioneered a culture in disregard of the seemingly unreasonable. But perhaps she faced into a different possibility, and looked at the chaos her mosaic left behind, and cried out for infinite understanding. For rescue.


Cherie said…
I believe it was Katharine Hepburn who said: If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.

Consequences though, to me, quickly negate all the fun out of an unwise action as well as endure far far far beyond any pleasure derived.

It's always boggled my mind why we stupid humans will repeat a negative so many times especially when the outcome is the same. I don't know if Edna's early version of free love was her downfall so much as an unexamined life.

There is a very real and certain satisfaction in finally getting a clue, as it sounds your grandma may have in the end.
Teal said…
awesome post.
your grandmother sounds like quite an, ehm, character.
Deanna said…
Thanks, Cherie, for your observations. I've wished G.E. were around to ask a few more things of, because when she was still here I couldn't yet access my questions.

Teal, yes, a character indeed.
Deanna said…
Cherie, I've been thinking more about your comment. My grandma's downfall, or at least her main problem as I see it, wasn't the practice of free love, but the apparent belief she held (as her repeat actions show) that free love wasn't wrong. That's the deal in our culture - although people still agree with the bible that several actions are wrong, such as murder and gossip, extra-marital sex is not on the list as "this is something I shouldn't have done".
Cecily said…
I very much liked this post Deanne, sifting through ideas and beliefs with a specific example in mind.

Can I throw an outrageous idea into the mix? I think the Church has overemphasised sexual 'sins'. I remember hearing all about how much damage those outside the church were doing to themselves by indulging in extramarital sex, something we were no doubt told as a deterrent. I observe some people and they seem quite fine, and I turn to wondering if what I was told is not true (the exaggerations of a scared Church) or if all my friends are hiding their brokenness, or perhaps a combination of the two.

Yes, promiscuity is unhealthy and unhelpful, but I suspect we have focused on this big issue at the expense of other more important issues and we as a Church are perhaps poorer for doing so.

There. My outrageous thoughts! I understand why you should like to speak more with your grandmother!
Deanna said…
Cecily, very good and not outrageous thoughts. Thanks for tossing them in.

My processing continues here, as well, as I try to look at where the established Church (or Christendom) has taken stands or refrained from taking them. The situation looks to me in some respects like the Pharisees' antics in their day: religious leaders (and folks like me) grasped with iron grip the sexual issues, because, hey, it's an outward thing if you commit sexual sin. People see it if you do (I mean, not literally, but there are outward effects) and if you don't, people see you as wonder-person, maybe, restraining yourself and all. So then, the outside of the cup, as it were, can be clean. However, an inwardly rebellious person can still flex the rules against sex in order to get away with very bad stuff, sexual or not.

I think the kind of rebellion against God that condemns us is the concerted effort - the desire to grab my own way - that never looks back. The one who rebels but is (or becomes) truly sorry and continually wants not to rebel (though they do), is the one seeking the path of God.

As I think you're saying, Cecily, in the church we tend to focus on the wrong piece of the sinful picture.