Out of Arcadia

It is easy enough to say that we will remember people who have left this world, but an altogether greater challenge to say what exactly that will mean in practice. Over time, the mental images of those who have left us acquire a sepia tone and fade into nostalgia. Pictures and words may carry forward the more poignant snapshots, but another’s presence in the moment is not something any of us can replicate. This is the way of the world, not cause for sadness but a reality that requires adaptation. How, exactly, do we sustain memory?

In my home office, a quest for a passable Zoom background became, unwittingly, a shrine of sorts that gets at the answer.

Pictures of my paternal grandparents sit beneath Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego, a depiction of Arcadian shepherds discovering a tomb, a realization that even in Arcadia, a fertile paradise of myth, death looms. My earliest memories of Alfred and Mary Ann Schuettler are a rural Wisconsin idyll: a venture across a corn field to a collection of bee boxes, hide-and-seek through their tangled gardens, throwing a baseball around with Grandpa in the back yard, decking the house for Christmas. All of the trappings of childhood simplicity and happiness, it seemed, could be found tucked away on Division Road.

Time and growing knowledge undid those images, and while aging shatters many youthful illusions, in few other places was the fall as obvious. Like the shepherds in Arcadia, I discovered death and human suffering, and knew there was no going back to the idle play that preceded it. I saw how escaping that world had allowed my dad to thrive. My grandparents aged, lost their faculties, and passed on. An uncle was there to care for them, but battled his own demons. The cats proliferated. The vegetation swallowed the home, the smell grew worse, the conversation more stilted. There was no going back, and it became some emblem of a fallen world.

To be cast from this garden is among the most fundamental facts of human life. It will take different forms for everyone, but come it will, even if some may never acknowledge it. When faced with this reality, the reactionary mind rejects the garden as a lie; the mature mind looks back on the garden and sees in it things that are worth perpetuating, even as it knows its impossibility as a permanent state.

It took me years to come to this place. I am leery of the word closure because it implies an ending that may not fully be, but this past weekend, on a venture to spread the ashes of my grandparents, I completed a project over a decade in the making. Distant relatives came out of the woodwork to pay their respects. An eight-foot family tree came forth, and stories about everyone on it followed. A drive past the family farm where it all started seared its way into my mind: the house burned years ago, but something of mine remains out on County LL north of Port Washington. Pictures revealed a time before the thickets swallowed up the world of the people who had planted them, a time when its flowers and gardens were meticulously tended and put on stunning display. We flipped through hundreds of old photos and sipped booze out of the Elvis figurines that secretly contained bourbon all along. My grandparents’ stories followed the full cycle, from some prelapsarian myth deep into purgatory, but now it can rise again not up into the clouds but instead into that rich Wisconsin earth where it belongs.

My maternal grandparents sit beneath Don Quixote. This piece came directly from them amid late life downsizing; I remember its old resting place above an entertainment stand in the house on Edgewood in Lombard, Illinois. (The stand was dominated by a radio, a fact that now would seem to suggest it was a relic of the Ming Dynasty.) From that pair of 1940s University of Chicago lovers I needed little in the way symbolism: the dynasty they founded and the lives they lived have stood on their own. But the words in which they immersed us all provide guides, too.

When, in my senior year of college, I took a full-semester course on Don Quixote, my professor, the formidable Barbara Mujica, repeatedly noted the cyclical nature of the novel. The common image of the knight errant as a symbol of freedom is only half his story. Don Quixote ventures out and then returns home, eternally searching, trying to recover the world of the chivalric novels he devoured, a performative seeker of an impossible dream. His journey shows not only what he strives for, but what he is missing, rising in pursuit of glory and falling into madness all at once.

The final chapters in Don Quixote are not a paean to the hero’s quests, but instead a lesson in how to die. Cervantes gives his readers some ideas on how to prepare for that unshakable fact: surround ourselves with a dense network, appreciate that our journeys are complete, free to cast aside any final illusions and go forth not as Don Quixote, but as Alonso Quixano the Good. With him, literature left behind the trifling Arcadian novels that preceded Don Quixote and discovered modernity, a mandate to pursue truth and move through time in a linear march.

That march of modernity loomed heavily over the past two years, a reality that includes both progress and inescapable loss. Fortunately, a few people have ruminated on this reality, and some of the best of them were my grandparents’ contemporaries or immediate forerunners: creative minds in the aftermath of calamity who dared envision a new world while still retaining some wisdom of the past. The names here will be of no surprise to people who know my reading habits: Wallace Stegner and Joan Didion, children of pushes to the frontier who appraised what their worlds had wrought with a keen skepticism, or Hannah Arendt and Octavio Paz, who harshly judged the machinations of modernity while still knowing that it formed the basis of the world in which they lived. Sometime in the middle of the twentieth century Don Quixote’s quest came full circle, and a few wise minds of that era stopped to gaze back on that Arcadian garden even as the world hurtled ahead. Too often now we have lost the ability to recognize it for what it is.

A generation is gone to me now, but I am at peace with it. Grandparents often have the freedom to bestow unconditional love, to spoil their grandchildren and never have to deal with the consequences of misbehavior or the grating tension that so often arises between parents and children who share the same home day after day; to create a world in which children can be knights errant on their own little quests. And yet they are in some ways inaccessible, will never be a peer in the way a parent can be once a child reaches some modicum of a stable adulthood. Several boomers in my life, now past the age when high school or college-aged kids could be considered peers of their own children, have noted how they have lost touch with the youth, can no longer relate in a way they once could. Two generations of separation in a world whose technological and cultural markers change at breakneck speed leave a gulf that can be bridged but never quite pulled back together.

There are ways to strengthen these bridges, to build ties across generations, and I will certainly submit that our world needs more for them. But there is forever a gap of space and time. That separation gives us a sense of our own time, tells us who we are. We do not have forever. Moments of influence are thrust upon us, and we can take different roles at different stages, finding the contributions most relevant to our specific moments. The passage of a generation teaches us something about these stages, and it may fuel our urgency to play our own parts, to preserve the best of it and pass it on.

With my grandparents’ ashes scattered, my dad and I head home in the company of six boxes of photos, which we will sift through in the coming weeks and months. But I also head home with a story about what my grandparents meant, the world they came from and what they can unwittingly teach. They have settled into that earth now, and from them another Arcadia can start to grow.


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