A week or so ago the woman I knew as Donna Bruno died, not of any kind of disease or misadventure, but simply of old age. Born in the Twenties, she was much lived and much loved. It’s a little hard to tell how many descendants she had since she was married several times, took in kids, treated everyone as though she were their archetypal grandmother. At her wake it was said that her death represented the end of an era.
If someone came around hungry, she fed them. If they were tired, she found them a clean warm bed. If they needed a roof, they could stay. But no funny business or bad behavior. And you ate what you were served, which meant parts of animals one doesn’t often encounter any more (brains, kidney, tongue) and if the family hunters got something, they ate it. When the Big Flood swept through the rez in 1964, she headed right up to the school, knowing that the refugees would be sheltered there. By the time other people thought of it, she was already tying on an apron and firing up the coffee pot. Later she became an EMT.
Not that she was all grim and serious. On the contrary, she was a gleeful and optimistic bingo player and horserace bettor. I suspect that her pedigree is the usual reservation mozaic of Chippewa-Cree and French we call Metis, Blackfeet and several kinds of white. Well upholstered, she loved the quiet moments, too. Her grandkids said she started her day at 5:30AM with a cigarette and coffee while taking out her pincurls. After a heart attack her Red Pall Malls went out of the house and so did all other smokers. When anyone asked her how she was she’d say, “Pretty damn good for an old woman.” She was what you’d call a matriarch.
Last night I watched “Mrs. Dalloway,” the Virginia Wolff novel made into a movie for and partly by Vanessa Redgrave who more or less channels Virginia in her aesthetic/ascetic/near-neurosthenic persona. The whole day follows Mrs. D’s concern for clothes and flowers as she prepares for one of her famous parties, always thinking about her memories of girlhood -- and then there is a parallel story about the last day of a shell-shocked young WWI veteran. It is a reflection on the nature of vulnerability, how we handle it in society, what it means to the lives of the persons.
Mrs. D. has always been a vital, keyed-up, elegant person who attracts admirers. The partner she chose was one who could provide money, protection, and status -- all knitted together into her parties. The choices she COULD have made were another woman (who eventually married, had five whomping sons, and got fat) and a man much like herself, full of insecurity and seeking. I suspect it was really about Virginia herself trying to justify her own life, with the parties as symbolic of her books. The reassurance is that her parties make a major contribution to political networking and social knitting. Still, she and the male lover of her girlhood have simply not grown-up. They need someone to parent them as they go on through life and though they cannot do that for each other, they can’t give up loving each other either. Mr. D. simply tolerates it, as a good father probably ought to, but it hurts him a little.
Contrast this with the life of Donna Bruno, who put hard work into taking care of others which was returned to her in old age by the many people who still came around to the Senior Citizen Center to see her. She was a grownup who parented others all her life.
And then contrast both female lives with the young veteran in the movie, so timely a character he is again after all the intervening years. His determined little milliner wife is helpless before the authoritarian Papas (doctors) who insist he must be captured and made to understand that he should relax, while at the same time driving him to suicide. He doesn’t trust them, can’t let them take care of him. It’s clear that these authorities (a female meddler included) cannot earn his trust. They are treacherous, wanting to forcibly deport all veterans who cannot “adjust” to Canada, with the excuse that “all that exercise and clean air” would be good for them. And of course, the government would appreciate not having to pay for these weaklings anymore.
Some things don’t change. Except nowadays Mrs. Dalloway would probably be fed a steady stream of tranquillizers and her unsteady but equally upper-class intimate might spend his life in therapy. We do seem to be making teeny strides with PTSS, turning now to a set of theories about brain function and away -- for the most part -- from that old idea that it’s simply a weakness of character not to pull up your socks and forget about all the people blown up in your face, dear though they might have been.
This movie is wonderful to watch, like all those evocations of past upper-class British life. When I was costumer at Eagles Mere, I handled a lot of those exquisite beaded chiffon dresses of the period because they’d been donated by people who hoped they’d be treasured. They were beginning to rot and shed beads. I suppose there’s symbolism in that and in Mrs. D. in the movie, who is sewing beads back on. Something about preserving the old elegance as long as possible.
And there’s a kind of elegance in Donna Bruno, too. A kind of world view of order and sustenance that seems to be changing. How many people in the larger scheme of things really recognized it? Who are the elegant among us now? Who could we do a better job of “parenting?”