The Grandpa, Baba, in Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth," a story from a collection of the same name, visits his daughter's new home in Seattle for the very first time. Two years earlier, he lost his wife--as his daughter lost her mother--in a completely unforeseen reaction to surgical medication. Both are grieving deeply in ways they don't really understand themselves.
What brings them more together than they've ever been, oddly--if they can be said to come together at all in their mutual suffering--is his daughter's little boy, the grandson, Akash, who takes to the old man in ways that his daughter never could have imagined. If change happens in this marvelous story--and I'm not so terribly sure it does--it happens because Grandpa and grandson get along so royally. Ruma, his daughter, is confused and surprised because her own relationship with her father, she judges, was never ever that playful, that intimate. It's as if she sees a father she never knew. And she may be right.
How is it that grandparents and grandchildren get along as well as they do?--or so goes an old joke. The answer?--mutual enemies.
That's a perfectly awful joke really, and yet one can't help but recognize some vagrant truth therein. When he's 70, and retired, Grandpa can be a different species of father--well, a grandfather--than he was to his own daughter when she was a child and he was 40, in the maelstrom of a busy working life. What "Baba" comes to understand during his visit in Seattle is that Akash--his daughter's little boy--is an immense gift: "Oddly, it was his grandson, who was only half-Bengali to begin with, who did not even have a Bengali surname, with whom he felt a direct biological connection, a sense of himself reconstituted in another."
Odd, but somehow understandable, like the enemies joke.
Stories function in two sometimes perfectly opposite ways. Sometimes they bring us out of our worlds for a fleeting moment or two, show us worlds we've never seen in passions and colors that are new; stories offer escape--like most of Hollywood.
But sometimes they move us in opposite directions; they bring us in, show us human beings who are so much like ourselves that we have to reach for breath. John Gardner used to say that the good literature models behavior we build our lives around. I think he was right.
I know Baba, not because I'm him. We're both grandpas, but I'm no widower, I'm not retired, I'm not Bengali, I didn't spend my life on this country's east coast. But I understand the guy, his motivations, his joy, his fears. Somehow I feel his life.
In my humble opinion, the great joy of the Psalms is not necessarily their theology or their worldview. The Psalms offer human experience in every shade and color. Think God has left the building?--so did David. Read 13 sometime and howl along.
The great lesson of literature--and the Bible in a different way--is that we come to understand, lo and behold, that we are not alone.
This morning's thanks is easy. After a long night with a single story from a marvelous collection, I know better, I think, who I am. This morning's thanks is for a story.