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The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (Crosswicks Journal) Paperback – January 1, 1984
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This journal offers a loving and poignant portrait of L'Engle's mother in old age that is more about living than dying.
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The setting of this, like her other Crosswick Journals, is their summer home. It is the home that her children were born in. But now that the family lives in New York City, it is where they spend their summers. This summer, and most summers, there are four generations in the home. But unlike previous summers, Madeleine’s mothers is confused and needing constant care.
This allows for L’Engle to reflect on her early life, the death of her father when she was young, the life of he earlier ancestors and the meaning of life and family. As with the first book in this series, there is lots of wisdom in these pages.
But the wisdom is occasionally hard fought for. L’Engle’s life, and the life of her ancestors, has not always been easy. Death matters. Her father died when she was a late teen from injuries that he received in World War I, but he survived with for years after. We are who we are, in part because of the lives of those that have come before us. Looking into those lives and thinking seriously about what has come before us is part of understanding ourselves.
An accomplished pianist, like the elder Madeleine, the author uses the metaphor of fugue to refer to the contrapuntal mix of feelings the presence of her mother provokes, a mother who by turns is angry, frightened – prone to night wanderings.
Each of her forebears, giant characters all named Madeleine, underscore the trans-generational nature of narrative and identity. In the end, though, her nineteen-year-old grandson presides over the death of the absent Ms. L’Engle, symbolizing in effect, the continuation of life, “across a traditional boundary of gender.”
As in Book One of the series, Madeleine continues her reflections on spirituality, reminiscing on the impact of her Mother’s Bible: “Perhaps through it she will teach me an alphabet of grace. She had that spontaneous quality of aliveness which illuminates people who have already done a lot of their dying, and I think I am beginning to understand the truth of that.” (180)
The author’s use of setting in the book particularly interested me. The family had a chic Manhattan apartment and a rambling New England homestead large enough to hold four generations including hired help. But there were flashbacks to their former residence in Jacksonville, Florida, where I currently live. I was aware of the great fire but had no idea it began when men, trying to burn Spanish moss from giant oaks, unwittingly began a fire that destroyed the city in 1901.
Readers who are also writers will appreciate her lessons about concentration and inspiration gleaned from her own experience. As a blurb from The Washington Post suggests, this is a perceptive book, “more about living than about dying.”