New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974
Week 28 Memoir
Ever since my mother’s health and memory began to fade, I have been planning to read this book by the author and Christian apologist, Madeleine L’Engle. I really only knew her work from the children’s book, A Wrinkle in Time, which won the Newberry Medal in 1963, and remains one of the most popular of all Newberry medal winners. Much like C.S. Lewis, she writes all her books from a Christian perspective, although her novels and children’s books are not overtly Christian.
Madeleine L’Engle was a prolific writer with over 60 published works. She died at age 88 in 2007. The Summer of the Great Grandmother is one of a set of memoirs called The Crosswicks Journal. The other parts of the series are A Circle of Quiet (1972), The Irrational Season (1977), and Two Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage (1988), written shortly after the death of her actor husband, Hugh Franklin. All are based at the family summer home, Crosswicks, in Goshen Connecticut.
In The Summer of the Great Grandmother, everyone has gathered at Crosswicks for the season, which begins with the marriage of L’Engle’s younger daughter and ends with the death of her mother. Two little great-grandchildren arrive for the summer about the same time as Madeleine’s mother, and so the four generations (10 people in all) spend this “summer of extremes” together. The great grandmother is failing rapidly – Alzheimer’s has taken over, and the whole family is affected. L’Engle begins her book: “This is the summer of the great-grandmother, more her summer than any other summer. This is the summer after her ninetieth birthday, the summer of the swift descent.”
Most of my friends are in the same situation as I am—very elderly parents in nursing homes and in great need. My mother used to come to the family cottages on Lake Michigan for the summer, but last summer was the first that we didn’t have her with us. So this summer, my family has rented a small apartment near my mother’s nursing home so someone can be with her most of the time. Is this her last summer? We don’t know, but at least we have this special time with her.
As you can probably imagine, I related completely to this memoir. I kept affirming, “This is my life.” The faith questions L’Engle asks are my questions, her prayers are my prayers. She is constantly praying for her mother's death so that she can be relieved of the fear and anguish that is resulting from her descent into Alzheimers. I pray the same prayer: “Please let Mother slip away.”
Additionally, as L’Engle is telling the story of her mother’s life, I became filled with questions about my mother’s ancestors—things I don’t know and will probably never know, because Mother can’t remember those details most of the time. At least, our mother knows us, and while she can’t quite remember who the great grandchildren are, she remains our loving mother who can still score over 300 points in a Scrabble game and express her joy that we are there with her. And she always asks the question, “What’s going on with you these days?”
When you read Madeleine L’Engle, you know her intimately; if she lived near you, or went to your church, she would be your friend. I would have liked to have known her and shared this summer of the great grandmother with her. By reading her book, written 35 years ago, somehow I did.
Here is the obituary for Madeleine L’Engle from the New York Times:
An interview from Christianity Today magazine: