Dear Natalia Ginzburg,
I feel like I know you. We’ve never met, of course. I’d never even heard of you back in 1991 when you died. Maybe it’s that “we” you take as your point of view in so many of your essays. It makes me feel like you were talking to me. I’ve never written a letter to anyone dead; not my mother, when she died in 1999, not even my father, who died just twenty months ago. So I hope you won’t mind if I reach out to you across the decades, across the veil that divides us, to tell you how disturbed I am by your description of aging.
In your essays, I found we had much in common, you and me. You, like me, were anxious about the world of adults in which we lived as children; alert to their changes of mood (and in my case, their health), we feared for the very stability of the ground we walked on. Their anger was an earthquake. You, like me, escaped into fantasies. Yours were a lot more interesting than mine, I’ll grant you, your chorus of invisible persecutors (the “we’s”) and imaginary prince. My dreams were about longing for true love – would Johnny McNutt be mine? (he loved me, he loved me not) – and the desire to be special, truly special, which would surely lead to the admiring attention of my parents, my teachers, maybe even the world at large. And adolescence! That terrible self-consciousness, self-interrogation and self-centeredness. And then marriage and motherhood. The day that my daughter was born, I felt as if my skin had been abraded, leaving me stripped of the membrane that protected me from the world. Forever after I was a quaking, bleeding mass of love and fear. You said it better when you wrote, “We never knew our bodies could harbor such fear, such fragility; we never dreamed we could feel so bound to life by a bond of fear, of excruciating love.”
Writing when you were younger than I am now, you refer to yourself as “old now.” Old now? You say that you are more patient but you find this new state of affairs disagreeable and feel only self-contempt for it. You say you see the future as “a cracked, rutted stretch of road where no grass grows.” You say you are tired.
You mention – mention – that maybe your loss of imagination is freeing you to “tell what really happened,” what you learned from the experience of others and your own. I read this while I am waist high in the lush landscape of your essays.
Perhaps I am confused because I met you as the freeway of the Me Generation petered out in a thicket. We “me’s” (not to confused with your “we’s”) see old age as a choice. We may mourn but we are not haunted by the dead. We haven’t suffered many losses, not yet. We’re ready for our Second Act. We’re ready for our close up.
You lived through the terrible war. You met “the right person” and married him when you were twenty-two. He was torn from you before you were thirty, thrown into prison by the Fascists in 1944. There he suffered and died alone.
Your experience, so different than mine, lies across a canyon I don’t know how to cross. You were old before my time. You were old before your time.
I miss you, and I’ve never even met you.
To “meet” Natalia Ginzburg, read “A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg,” chosen and translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, a writer and faculty member of the Bennington Writing Seminars.