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Thoughts from a Humanoid: Adrift

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

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Growing up with the childhood narcissism of most kids, I couldn’t fathom the idea that my parents – and by extension my grandparents – had ever had lives, identities, that had nothing to do with me. That they had existed long before I ever did was hard to imagine. As I grew older, I come to terms with this and was even intrigued by the people my parents and grandparents were long ago when they were young themselves, something that Gregory Mardon taps into with sensitive, bittersweet precision in his portrait of his grandfather’s life as a seafaring youth, charting how he fell in love and made a home for his family in Adrift.

It made me think of my own grandparents and who they were before I met them, especially my maternal grandmother Rose Marie, or “Omi” as my sisters and I called her, a contraction of the Germanic “Oma”. During my childhood, Omi was the ultimate embodiment of home, comfort, warmth, unconditional love and classic femininity – she went to the hairdresser every week to have her silver curls set, she always wore lipstick on the rare occasions her homebody-self ventured out, and she always smelled of Chanel No. 5 perfume, even while she stood for hours at the stove cooking up elaborate breakfast spreads or her signature rich, deliciously Gruyere-laden dishes. But behind her demure ladylike demeanor, her shy, soft-spoken-ness, lay a spine forged of steel.

I knew there was a tragic darkness to her past – she was born in 1930 in a tiny Swiss village, her childhood shrouded in scandal when her mother abandoned her father and disappeared without a trace, unheard of at that time and place. She was left her to raise her younger brother until her father remarried. I remember asking her if she had a wicked stepmother, because I was only able to filter real life through literary and cinematic terms. In my romantic child-mind, Omi’s past self was a combination of Heidi frolicking through the Alps, Cinderella slaving away at the hearth, and Maria Von Trapp taming an unruly horde of wealthy children.  

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But perhaps the life of her own scandalous mother hinted that Rose Marie would not be content to live and die in the same town where she was born like the other village girls. Instead, as a young woman she became the governess to a British family, leaving her painful past and native tongue of Swiss German behind her – more than daring for a woman of her day and age. 

Like Mardon’s grandfather “Dodo”, she sailed across the sea to escape, only her destination wasn’t Morocco but New York, an immigrant to America after WWII like so many others. She attended the Institute of Technology in upstate New York, a surprising choice of study given I knew her only as a consummate goddess of domesticity. There she met her husband Walter, my grandfather, a tall German doctor with a mischievous sense of humor. She and Walter were married in 1956 in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York but only narrowly averted a Titanic-style tragedy when the ocean liner they were due to sail to Europe on for their honeymoon, the Andrea Doria, sunk the day before their departure, drowning dozens. Had they been superstitious, they could have seen it as a bad omen, but they sailed unscathed on another ship. 

They settled in Oklahoma City, where my grandfather was a professor of medicine. There they weathered the turbulent American ‘60s and ‘70s, with Rose Marie busy raising her family, rarely mentioning her long-lost birth mother – although she disliked her middle name, Agnes, as it was her mother’s first. 

It was only in the early 2000s when my grandparents had retired to the coastal Californian town of Carmel-by-the-sea that Walter, obsessed with tracing genealogy lines on both sides of the family, finally tracked Agnes down. My grandfather insisted the estranged mother and daughter meet after a lifetime apart. The reunion with the mother who abandoned her was a reluctant one on Rose Marie’s part, but proved to be enlightening as well as emotional -- Agnes had remarried and had another family, and had never told her new daughter Rita about the existence of her previous one. My grandmother handled the late in life news of an unknown half-sister with grace, as she always did. 

In the end, she lived to be the antithesis of her own mother – a woman whose utter selflessness put the needs and comfort of everyone else before her own, and who always seemed happy and fulfilled doing so. She was, without a doubt, the one who made so many of my childhood memories golden.

The stories of our parents and grandparents are powerful portals into the past, as Mardon so skillfully illustrates in Adrift. It’s a reminder that we can never really grasp the full scope of someone else’s life, no matter how close in bond and blood. But when we listen to their memories of places and people from long ago, we discover something of ourselves as well, apart from personal oral history – we find the strength to carve out our own paths into the future. 

Adrift is washes ashore on Wednesday with an MSRP of $14.95 / £12.99