My grandmother died this week. Maybe the best way to honor her is to explain, briefly, what she was to me.
By the time I went to college and was beginning to know her as something more than Gramma Who Lives Across the Country, my grandmother had begun her late-life immersion into an intellectual realm that few people dwell in, even fewer as joyfully as she did. She had found the passion that would power her through her last decade-plus: the literature of James Joyce.
I hadn’t known her as a literary buff before, but over the course of the last decade, she made herself into one, and treated reading Joyce and actually understanding him as seriously as a part-time job. She wrote papers, presented at conferences, hosted weekly reading groups, grew a trove of Joycean books, and held well-attended celebrations for Joyce’s holiday, Bloomsday. She thought about Joyce in relation to Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Mann, Lewis Carroll, Charlie Chaplin, and pretty much everything else. She discovered something she loved, and she worked it for all it was worth.
Everything beautiful comes out of something unreasonable, I like to say. Reasonability is what drives factories, maintenance schedules, and cubicle design. It’s necessary, but it’s not what we live for. Gramma knew what we lived for, even if she didn’t necessarily think of it that way: We live for transcendence, and transcendence is not reasonable. It’s not efficient or sensible to spend hours at a time poring over academic books that will never earn you a penny or yield any tangible results, but when you embrace a thing you love like that, you put magic into the world. We can always use more of that, and for that reason and many others, I am sorry that Gramma Who Loves James Joyce is now gone.