Art Imitating Life Before I Even Knew It

Reading To The Lighthouse imitates life in a few ways. First off, Woolf apparently wrote it because she was haunted by the spectre of her own mother, who died when she was thirteen. To make a long story short, before Woolf wrote it, she struggled to come to terms with her mother…and after she finished, she stopped seeing her mother in everything.

Woolf must’ve done a good job, not just for herself, but also for her sister Vanessa who wrote in a letter to Virginia: “you have given a portait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.”

To the Lighthouse was published in 1927, and is contemporary for that time–meaning that the shift from Victorian to Modern had just occured and that a lot of the ‘old-fashioned’ thought still lingered. Namely the concept of the “Angel in the House.”
The Angel is what we know today as Supermom!!

The Supermom!! in Lighthouse is Mrs. Ramsay. She’s super in some very notable ways: she loves her children, but she knows them. They can’t hide their flaws. She wants to be viewed as charitable, concientious, and beautiful. She is, to put it simply, the mom who would have Kool-Aid ready (if Kool-Aid had existed then) and lived for her family.

For this to reflect in my own life: fast-foward to the age of Facebook.

I never knew my great-grandmother (or my great-grandfather). Everyone called her Memere, and she was apparently French in some form or another (either she came to the U.S. from France or her parents did). But, lo and behold, my uncle has old photos of her and her family…which he posted on Facebook.
These photos have to have been shot in either the early 1930s or the late 1920s–putting these right at the time of Woolf’s novel. FREAKY!

And thus I was confronted with the real Angel of the House. I could not have painted my image of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse any more perfectly. Slightly rounded from giving birth to numerous children (eight in the fictional Mrs. Ramsay’s case, somewhere around 11-12 for my great-grandmother…I lose count of the children in the photos. There are eight boys alone, the girls I’m more shady on….) I picture a bright smile. Supportive laughter.

This discovery has made Lighthouse more poignant for me. It gives me a picture of what my great-grandmother may have been like (by all accounts, a frightfully cheerful woman) and what she may have struggled with.
My family still adores this woman, Memere, even decades afterward–or, at least, their image of her. She was a loving mother. A laughing friend. Surely someone who would read fairy tales to the kids.
Someone who shrieks in a motherly fashion: “Turn right here!”
And her husband turns right.
And she continues, “No, turn left, not right!”
He says “You said turn right!”
She answers, “No, I said turn right here, in this intersection. But you turn left right here!”
(Story provided by my own mother.)

In her photos, her smile lights up the frame. I smile too (she makes me think of Mrs. Claus). The family photos are below, you can check them at your leisure.

But you know the problem with this Angel? Do you want to know what my biggest, hugest problem is? (My problem is illustrated in To the Lighthouse. I can tell you who Virginia Woolf is because she focused on her art–she is the Lily Briscoe, the artist of the novel. But Mrs. Ramsay is the Angel–I don’t know her first name.)
My great-grandmother was an Angel too. This woman, who gave so much love and joy to her family–so much that I can hear stories of her almost 100 years later…

And I can’t tell you her name.
But here are photos:
These are the boys. Great-grandfather is center with the vest. My grandfather is one of the boys…one of the younger ones I think.
These are the ladies–Great-grandmother is left-center with the dark jacket. I’m not sure if there are more girls than this. So total child count = 11 according to the photos.
This is my Great-grandmother (right) with her daughter-in-law (my grandmother, Wenona Maloney; I’m almost 100% sure but it just goes to prove: LABEL YOUR PHOTOS!)

And my Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother.

4 thoughts on “Art Imitating Life Before I Even Knew It

  1. Sweet tribute to both Virginia Woolf and your great-grandmother. The photos are precious. We don't have a single photo of my grandmother and it is a huge loss. She died when my mother was a child.

  2. I'm sorry to hear that, Marie. (We'll assume Irene looks just like her. =))

    Yeah, I got lucky with these. Without Facebook I wouldn't even know that these photos existed!

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