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What Will You Do with Your One Precious Life?

Some years ago I wrote:


It occurs to me that no matter how discouraged I get, never to give up – for Charlotte’s sake. She never had the opportunities I have. She would be incredulous at my having them, let alone at my then giving them up.

So I’ll do it ‘for Charlotte,’ whenever I feel discouraged.”

Charlotte was my maternal grandmother. She died of cancer at 50, twenty years before I was born. I have one photograph of her, in which I see that she also died of exhaustion, despair, and a broken heart.

Charlotte was born in a slum in Victorian London. Census records show she was a live-in nursemaid before she was 14.

She would have been illiterate, and unable to vote. She spent her life doing the most menial of work - like scrubbing other peoples’ floors on her knees - a virtual slave to her circumstances. Her husband left when she became pregnant with my mother, seventeen years after the birth of their previous children. She died ten years later.

I see an introverted, sensitive, profoundly traumatized woman, battered by her life from cradle to premature grave in the photograph.

I feel so honored that she was my grandmother. How astonished she would have been to know this, sitting there in a shabby photographer’s studio in east London!

Charlotte lived in a world most of us now can barely imagine, less than a hundred years later. She had no real opportunities. She would be incredulous at my having the ones I have, and beyond incredulous if I then let them slip away.

How many of us can tell such stories, are descendants of ancestors who would be astonished by opportunities we regularly ignore or discard?

We do not know what will come from our courage, our keeping on keeping on. We do not know how much our descendants need for us to have not given up.

A powerful practice is to write letters to, do ceremonies for, our ancestors, thanking them for making our lives possible. And to our descendants, who need us to live now, so they may one day exist.

And to tell both what we are doing, and going to do, with our one precious life . . .

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