My grandmother lived with us as I was growing up—a source of consolation who often shared her breakfast with me and who read to me when I was sick. Grandmothers not only play a supportive role in the lives of many children—in some cases they stand out as the single source of love amid hostile surroundings. Such was the case with two writers whose autobiographies stress the importance of their own grandmothers in their emotional and even intellectual development. Both were women of deep faith, and both were poor.
In the more recent of these autobiographies, Before Night Falls (1992), the Cuban exile Reinaldo Arenas describes his upbringing in a campesino family in which love was sorely lacking. His grandmother was its only supplier. When he was small, she held him on her knees and sang to him, although she had to endure the brutality of a drunken and unfaithful husband. Illiterate herself, she nevertheless had insisted that all her own children attend school and learn to read and write, and consequently Reinaldo’s mother—though her love for him was less—in turn taught him, her only child by a man who had abandoned her.
Arenas speaks of his grandmother as a “mythic person,” who would interrupt her heavy household chores to walk up a hillside to speak aloud with a God whose presence manifested itself clearly in nature. She talked to the trees and knew the properties of herbs and how to prepare them as medications for a variety of family ailments. When she died, he summed up her importance in his life by saying that with her, “a whole universe” died too.
The other writer, Maxim Gorki, was born a century earlier in Russia. In the first part of his autobiography, My Childhood (1913), he describes an early life similar to Arenas’s—again, one focused on his grandmother, whose husband was as brutal as the husband of Arenas’s grandmother. “It was her unselfish love of the world,” he says, that “nourished me with the strength I would need for the hard life that lay ahead.” Sleeping in the same room with her, he speaks of hearing her as—prayer shawl over her head—she spoke aloud to God. “Grandmother told God about everything that happened in the house, down to the last detail.” He goes on to say: “I liked Grandmother’s God very much, because he was so near to her, and I often used to ask her: ‘Tell me about God!’” And when she did, “her face regained its youth and her moist eyes radiated a particularly warm light.”
Just as with Arenas’s grandmother, Gorki’s saw God intertwined with the natural world. “She even talked about him to animals,” he says, and in one incident describes her rescue of a starling from the innkeeper’s cat: “Grandmother took the tortured bird away and started scolding the cat: ‘You’ve no fear of God, you miserable wretch!’” Annoyed that the innkeeper’s wife was laughing at her, she shouts: “You think that animals don’t know about God? Every living thing knows about God.” In the same vein, while harnessing the family horse, she asks: “Why are you so down in the dumps, my servant of God? Getting old, are you?” Then, as if in reply, “the horse would sigh and shake his head.”
Despite the deprivations of their early lives, both writers went on to achieve renown. Gorki’s fame came first through his play, “The Lower Depths,” published in the early 19th century. Arenas’s name became known through novels first written in Cuba starting in the 1960’s, which—because they were considered subversive—were smuggled out to friends abroad, where they were published. Indirectly at least, it can be argued that much of what led to these two writers’ achievements had its roots in the one solid affective bond of their early lives, an attachment that gave them the equilibrium they needed while pursuing their later literary careers. Such attachments continue today for countless children who have nowhere else to turn for the kind of love that nourishes them as much as food itself.