Friday, May 27, 2011

Pearls of Wisdom

More of my themes than one converged at a buffet table I attended on Sunday. It's banal, even disrespectful, to be struck first of three pearls of wisdom that I ate  pickled pearl onions at a memorial service, because this is why one sometimes recoils at the phrase, "celebration of life." The mind makes trivia out of solemn events, and so I was struck to only then learn that she had been christianed Pearl. Pearl is dead, and people are sad. They should be. For   all that she was born in the middle of the First World War, and that she has been slipping away from us for a very long time, she is still gone. (Better had I phrased this idea of a celebration in terms of the  niece and the nephew. Pearl was dear to me because she was precious to my cousins and it seems fitting that we all take these opportunities to give the next generation a chance to be with their cousins. Children playing. Now that is celebration.)

A second pearl; If you knew Pearl, you will be wondering why I am calling her that, and not the name that she chose for herself. It is so that you can take as much or as little intimacy as you like in the way of the Internet, but also to highlight that we can and do choose our names, if we are wise.

So I have family, and  semi-anonymity on the plate as well as my other themes. For a reason; I recall, some years ago, a relative that I will not name (as far as I am concerned, this is memory playing tricks, and there is no relative to name, or blame) telling me a story about Pearl and her son.  That story was that Pearl had finally revisited her distinguished Scottish pioneer ancestor and admitted that she was descended from his Salteaux Ojibway "country wife" and not his "white wife." (Though "white wives" are sometimes as dubious as "country wives, but that's yet another story.)

And another story, the one that her son told at the memorial. That story, told through actions and carefully-posed and mischievous photos was of a woman who played with, and hinted at, her aboriginal ancestry. It was, he said, another side of the story of his mother's life to put beside her class-conscious striving for genteel status.

But was it? Society imposes its canons of authenticity, according to which one must be one or the other, White or Indian, upper class or lower class. Each status belongs with its companion on the other side of the comma. To mix them up, to make the wrong combinations is ... well, what is it. I'll put it this way, any "or" that narrows us down into little  boxes of meaning is tyranny. And that is especially true when the subject is so tender as race. It did not suit Pearl. This the last, and best pearl, and Pearl's. It does not, I suggest, suit us.

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