Grandma Robinson

IT is hard to write about Grandma Robinson without making her seem arrogant — which she was not — or too severe. She was essentially a Puritan woman. Her preoccupations were with good behavior, with those good manners which maketh man, and sound theology. I am sure that she considered most of the material things of this world beneath her notice, but there was a certain coquetry in the starched daintiness of her widow’s cap and the perfection of her black silk dress. She was Roman-nosed and held herself very erect; her opinions on all subjects were definite and absolute. The word ‘compromise’ was entirely lacking from her vocabulary.

When I knew her, she was an old lady and I was a little boy. Our association was constant and, in a way, intimate, yet I cannot recall that she ever showed me any sign of affection. I am quite sure, for example, that she never kissed me. Such a display of sentimentality would have been abhorrent to her, but she was interested in me and my doings and gave — as it seemed to me — far too much time to my training and education. When I was twelve, she insisted on teaching me — or making me learn — the Odes of Horace, and she did it, quite literally, with a ruler, rapping my knuckles when I forgot, or hemmed and hawed, or gaped vacantly into space. She was severe and she never petted me. And I adored her. There was something about her, something durable, eternal, a principle of living which never wavered or weakened. I suppose that, as a little boy, I hardly understood and certainly did not analyze Grandma Robinson, but I feared and respected and loved her for what I think must have been her great and constant rectitude. She was like God to me. But a just God, and fundamentally kind.

I should pause to say that my grandmother’s pride was not so much a selfsatisfaction as a very real feeling for the honor and standard of her forbears, who had been good men and women since their arrival on this continent; she felt that she must carry and pass on the torch. She was a Williams and proud of it. Her family had founded Williams College and Williamstown and Providence, and fought Indians and taught them and signed the Declaration of Independence, and had somehow contrived, each male of them, to graduate from either Harvard or Yale. They had been parsons and public servants; they bad served their country and their communities for generations; and they were, for pioneers, singularly erudite. I have inherited many of their books and manuscripts and a certain amount of folklore.

There were many family stories. My grandmother, I remember, used to tell me of Eunice Williams who was captured by Indians at the Deerfield massacre and was, as a child, taken to Canada and adopted into the tribe. She became an Indian and a squaw and married an Indian. Many, many years after the massacre, she appeared at Deerfield accompanied by a white boy who seemed very shocked and amazed. She could speak no English, but somehow she managed to find two of her brothers, old men then, to whom she delivered the white child; then she disappeared back again into the wilderness and her strange, alien life. The boy was adopted and baptized Eleazar Williams — there was a novel written about him called, I think, Lazarre, and my grandmother and I firmly believed that he was the Dauphin, supposedly dead and buried during the French Revolution.

We thought highly of Eunice — even if Eleazar’s claims to the throne of France were never substantiated. I think, too, that Grandma approved of my grandfather’s antecedents. He, whom I never knew, was seventh or eighth in direct descent from John Robinson, the noble pastor of the Pilgrim Fathers who led them from England to Holland but was physically unable to go with them in the Mayflower to the new land. She used to say, ‘He was a graduate of Cambridge and was universally esteemed. Even one of his most determined opponents wrote of him, “Robinson was a man of excellent parts, and the most learned, polished, and modest spirit that ever separated from the Church of England.”’

Anyhow, Grandma was proud of her heritage and that of her husband. It was an incentive and an inspiration to her. Not in any social sense, as we understand the word. She assumed that she was as good and as important as anyone on earth, but her concern was with the tradition of good behavior, of morality, and the high principles which she had inherited. And along with all this was a tradition of education, almost but not quite equally important. Consequently she insisted on her descendants’ appreciating sound religion and good learning. And, after her husband’s death, she was a matriarch. She gave me a Bible when I could hardly read, and every morning I had to come to her room and recite verses from the Psalms or some appalling statement of Isaiah’s which I had committed, temporarily, to memory. This dreary dipping into Jewish history weighed on my young life a good deal, but I staggered along under the burden with a certain resignation until Grandma began to concern herself with my education in the classics. It was absurd, she said, that a great, oaf of twelve should be studying how agricola, the farmer, had a table, mensam. At the age of ten she had been taught the Odes of Horace by her grandfather and she learned them all — except, I suppose, a few improper ones — by heart.

A few months later when I was struggling with the hard chapter in Cæsar’s Commentaries in which he wrote about building his hateful bridge, she lost her patience altogether. She said, ‘I suppose you want to spend the rest of your life building bridges?’

I said, ‘No, Grandma, no!’ It was inconceivable to me, even then, that any human being or domestic animal would have trusted himor itself to any bridge built by me. It would probably have been constructed of straw and some form of moss, and under the pressure of any creature weighing more than five ounces would have collapsed in fearful ruin. I simply could not see myself as a bridge builder or construction engineer. Nothing in my unduly prolonged afterlife has led me to change this opinion so precociously adopted. But Grandma was not satisfied; ‘Fools,’ she said, ‘can be hired to build bridges, but you must think for yourself; you must study and know and do!’

So she began teaching me the Odes of Horace. She said that it was of no importance that I should understand their meaning or translate them. If I learned them by heart and felt the beauty and the delicacy of the sonorous verse, sooner or later I would understand it. Values were lost, she felt, in translation. Horace could be Horace only in Latin.

Next to the Boston and Salem aristocrats who, as she said, ‘had made fortunes in importing Negro slaves from Africa, rum from the West Indies, and in cheating the Chinese, and had betrayed New England,’ she held in contempt the translators of Horace and those German educators who had produced a new pronunciation of Latin. ‘Do you mean to tell me that Cicero was Kikero? Nonsense! Stupid German nonsense!’ And although at school I was taught the German pronunciation, I preferred Grandma’s. It sounded better and I knew that many, many good people had read and sounded their Latin in that way.

I remember how she began her lessons.

‘My father started my instruction in Latin verse with the first of Vergil’s Eclogues. He thought, mistakenly, that the Odes were too difficult. The poem goes:—

‘ Tytyre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi.

‘Please repeat.’

And I did fairly well, breaking down at recubans because I was intrigued by a pigeon outside the window which Seemed to have no purpose in life — and I had a rap on my knuckles for my absentmindedness. ‘Yes, Grandma,’ I said, ‘recubans, recubans, recubans, recubans, recubans — I know it perfectly well, Grandma, I just can’t think of the word — recubans, recubans . .

‘Stop!’ she said, ‘or I shall go mad. The poem goes: —

1 Tytyre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi.’

‘That is right,’ I agreed/that, is correct. I just forgot what came after recubans.’

Grandma said, ‘Would you mind leaving me now for a while? I am a little tired.’

Then, unhappily, Grandma’s illness began, although I did not know it and nothing about it was ever said to me until her last day on earth. She had angina, and I doubt if the modern reliefs for the severe angina pains, nitroglycerine and so on, were available then. At any rate our lessons in Horace were interrupted quite often — and to my great relief — by Grandma’s saying, ‘Please go. I wish to be alone!’ And I would go cheerfully away, not knowing anything.

One day she said to me, ‘There is one ode I want you to understand and I will explain part of it to you. The rest you can learn for yourself in time.’ So we began: —

‘Integer vitae scelerisque purus . . .’

‘What does that mean, Grandma?’ I asked.

She said, ‘Even the wretched men who miseducate you at school must have told you what an integer is in arithmetic. It is a whole number, a unit, not a fraction. Not part of a thing or divided, but a whole thing. And I think Horace meant that a man who was integral in life, who was always himself, who therefore could not lie, could not deceive, could not be anything to anybody except the truth of himself, such a man need and could not fear anything in nature. Please repeat :

‘Integer vitae scelerisque purus,
Non eget Mauris jaculis nec arcu,
Nec venenatis gravida sagittis,
Fusee, pharctra . . .

And now go. But remember that I want you to be integral in your life and a person who cannot deceive or lie.’

I said, yearning for my own room and the package of Sweet Caporal cigarettes hidden under the mattress, ‘Yes, Grandma! Thank you, Grandma.’

Our next session was concerned with the great stanza,

Sire per Syrfes iter aestuosas,
Sive facturns per inhospitalem
Caucasum, vel quae loco, fabulosus
Lambit Hydaspes.

The only bit of translation I learned on this occasion was when Grandma repeated : ‘ Sive per Syrtes iter aestuosas — a stormy road, a hard road, a hard road but we must all travel it.’ I did not understand.

When we came to the last stanza,

Pone sub carru nimiutn propinqui
Solis, in terra domibus negata,

I was confused by the sudden reappearance of a person named Lalage: —

Dulce ridentem Lalagen amabo,
Dulce loquentem.

‘But, Grandma,’ I said, ‘amabo means I will love. What has this to do with t he Caucasus?’

‘It is not important,’ she said; the poet is merely paying a tribute to a lady, probably his wife, who laughed and spoke gently. I refuse to use the insipid word “sweetly.” The important part of the poem is in the first two stanzas, Integer vitae and Sive per Syrtes

But I thought the lines about Lalage were much the most interesting.

Then came a day when our house was filled with grown-up people. There was Dr. Stryker, and a nurse, and the parson of our church, and my parents and my aunt and my two cousins. My mother took me aside and, with tears running down her cheeks, said, ' I have to tell you that your grandmother is dying . . .’

I said, ‘Oh no, Mama, Grandma can’t die; she can’t leave us, she can’t go . .

And I sat on the hall stairs above Grandma’s room and cried.

Suddenly all of the grown-up people disappeared. I suppose they went away for a moment to hear what the doctor had to say; and while they were gone I stole into Grandma’s room where she was lying very quiet and still, propped almost upright against her pillows. I said, ‘Grandma, don’t go! I know it all by heart. Please, please, please, Grandma, don’t go. Listen: Integer vitae scelerisque purus — please, Grandma, don’t go!’

She said, through her lips, ‘I am having a very hard time dying. I can only hope, my child, that when your time comes it will be less painful for you.’

‘ But,’ I said, ‘ Grandma, listen: Tytyre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi — I know it now, all of it. You can’t go, Grandma — oh please, please don’t go. Please stay here with me, Grandma!’

She said, ‘I wish you would leave me. I have to be alone for a little while.’

So I went back, halfway up the stairs, and sat there beating my thighs with both hands and repeating: —

‘ Sive per Syrtes iter aestuosas,
Sive facturus per itiliospilalem . . .’

And suddenly Grandma died. I had never seen anybody die, but I was sure of it. She gave a little shudder and then she lay there, still propped up on her pillows, looking very small and serene. Then the grown-ups came back and there were activity and lamentation. The doctor and the nurses went through their rituals; my mother and my aunt wept beside the bed; and finally the parson knelt and said in a fine pulpit voice: ’O God, Thou who hast in Thine infinite wisdom taken to Thyself the soul of this Thy servant . . . As if Grandma were anybody’s servant! I didn’t know until long years later how faithfully she had served that Master whose service is perfect freedom.

So I sat on the stairs, crying and crying as if my heart would break and saying:—

‘Oh Grandma—Sive per Syrtes iter aestuosas —oh Grandma!’