For me, the word “funny” is mischievous: it is not just an adjective but also a proper noun.
My paternal grandmother’s name was Nell, but we called her Funny—a nickname, chosen by her, which showcased her particular brand of ego and eccentricity. Funny had an artsy side and a kooky side. A lover of poetry, she’d casually quote T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” during ordinary conversation, just to get a point across. To a grandchild asking why a cranky neighbor had to be called on, she’d reply: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit . . .” She loved singing, too, and often accompanied herself on the piano—quite well, despite a lack of formal training. Perched on the edge of her Wanamaker piano bench, feet barely reaching the pedals, she’d play us songs recalled from her childhood in England eighty-something years earlier. She’d confidently transpose melodies from one key to another, and warble along in her thin soprano: “God sees the little sparrow fall, it meets his tender view . . .” Her lullabies were cheerful and vivacious, the opposite of sleep-inducing.
Funny also read tarot cards. She was an astrologer, Theosophist, Kabbalist, and clairvoyant witch (the white-magic kind, she insisted). “You’ll find answers to all your questions right here,” she’d point at her special library, which bordered her living room’s fireplace on both sides. “On these shelves.”
Although Funny didn’t know it, most of my questions focused on my family. My father’s icy refusal to take Funny’s spiritual preoccupations seriously, her scornful dismissal of his rationalism: nothing on Funny’s bookshelves, it seemed, could illumine these inexplicable realities. An adolescent pawn in a game of emotional chess, I anguished over split loyalties: to a grandmother who unconditionally supported my desire to be a writer, and to a father bewildered by my disappearance into Funny’s burrow. Not without reason, my father was deeply resentful of what he saw as his mother’s calculated manipulation of his firstborn. (She wasn’t worried about how the girl would earn a living! Easy for her not to bring that up!)
Funny was, I believe, an undiagnosed manic-depressive. During the course of an evening, she’d loop from brilliant uproariousness to grimness and back again, leaving everyone spent. One moment, her account of a childhood prank would make my two siblings and me heave with laughter; the next moment, she’d have us worried she was about to cry as she recalled her deceased half-sister; the next, we’d be laughing again as she mocked her harsh stepmother. Funny relished her discombobulating effect on my father, her only child. The rest of us—my mother, my siblings, and I—were hostage to his pain and confusion; there was no one to spring him or us from it, no keeper of the keys to clarity and detachment.
When, at the age of ninety-nine, Funny slashed her wrists and hopped into her bathtub after phoning my mother to announce her final gambit (I’m here, come get me!), the game was up. We did go get her, of course. She was hospitalized, and a kindly social worker talked with us about the nontrivial nature of her suicide attempt, which, naturally, she survived. (The point, dear ones, I imagined her intoning—you’ve missed the point.) We had no idea what to say to her afterward, nor she to us. For the first time in Funny’s long reign over the family, silence set in.
She died not long after the wrist-cutting, in her sleep. I took charge of clearing out her house; my father was given the job of sprinkling her ashes in her garden. He and I could barely look at each other during the memorial service; it took years before we could speak of her tranquilly. Funny represented a fearsome, seductive kind of love and chaos; sometimes I thought I saw her handwriting on my wall—that I, too, would have to endure the peaks and troughs she had. Worse, I feared I’d never learn how to achieve a calm connection with the man whose equanimity she constantly challenged: my father.
Thankfully, as I approached my third decade, my father and I had things other than his mother to discuss—politics, work, books—and our dialogues rarely centered on her. Thinking I’d sidestepped the past, in my thirties I wrote my first novel, The Archivist, which had—so I told myself—nothing to do with my family. Somehow I failed to acknowledge that it featured a woman’s heat and darkness, the poems of T. S. Eliot, and the anguish caused by family secrets and power struggles.
I can hear Funny cackling. The point, my dear—you’ve missed the point.
Early this January, Princeton University unveiled over a thousand letters written by T. S. Eliot to a woman named Emily Hale.
The nature of their relationship has interested Eliot scholars for decades, and initial accounts hint that the letters will confirm he was in love with Hale, who in 1957 bequeathed his side of their correspondence to Princeton—against Eliot’s wishes, and with instructions about when the letters could be made public. (Hale’s side of the correspondence was destroyed after Eliot’s death, on his orders.)
The Hale bequest sits at the center of The Archivist. In the novel, Eliot’s letters are the object of a contest of wills between two people—the story’s eponymous librarian, a reserved older man in charge of the collection (not, mind you, the real-life guardian of those letters) and a younger woman who wants access. Troubled by her immigrant parents’ concealment of their conversion from Judaism to Christianity, which occurred after they fled Germany during World War Two, she hopes to learn Eliot’s motives for his own conversion from Unitarianism to Anglicanism. Her request summons certain memories—of his Jewish wife, their marriage, and her death—that the archivist has worked to suppress, forcing him to make unexpected decisions, both personal and professional.
Before Funny died, she took to sticking Post-its on various possessions. I’d visit her in Raven Rock, a tiny hamlet on the Delaware River north of Trenton, New Jersey, and find pink squares on a tea caddy, a jewelry box, photo frames, mirrors, a chair, a book—and on countless other things as well. It was as though someone had showered confetti.
Each Post-it proclaimed This is for ___, sometimes adding a bit of information about the object. Her aim, Funny told me, was to avoid confusion over who’d get what after she died. Although I figured she was seeking unconsciously to shake things up, my family had no trouble accepting her decisions, and her possessions were dispersed as she intended.
Well, not all of them. She’d amassed a collection of about a hundred books having to do with all things occult. And I—no one else—was supposed to tend to these after her death: this was her explicit command. She’d purchased many of the books from Samuel Wiser, a small publisher and bookseller in New York City, through whom she’d located and bought rare volumes on alchemy, mysticism, Tarot, the Tree of Life, and other such matters. I was to find a collector who’d appreciate them, Funny told me. Or, even better, an institution—perhaps a university library or a private foundation—which would be delighted to purchase such a specially curated and unusual collection.
After her death I carefully boxed up all the books and carried them from one apartment to another in Cambridge and Brooklyn (my life being in those years anything but rooted) until I landed in Washington, D.C., with my then-husband. In Georgetown, I found a kind and knowledgeable antiques dealer who offered to display the books in his shop, and to help me find a buyer for the collection as a whole. After making calls, he found no one willing to buy—or even take off my hands for free—the entire lot. He advised me to try to sell a few of the individual rare volumes, but I didn’t want to break up what Funny had intended to remain unified.
No, I said, I’d wait. A few years went by. Each time I pictured the books gathering dust, I distracted myself with other thoughts. Then one day the antiques dealer left a message on my phone: he was moving—rents had gone up, he could no longer stay in the city. I’d have to find another home for Funny’s collection.
He left a similar message to the same effect a few weeks later. I didn’t respond, didn’t visit the shop, didn’t do a thing. To this day I can’t fully account for my immobility. It might have had to do with the fact that my marriage of fourteen years was heading toward a cliff. Or with the fact that my relationship with my father had finally found a shape that didn’t include Funny’s shadow. Or with the fact that I was trying to write The Archivist. In any case, I didn’t contact the dealer, and never learned what happened to my grandmother’s precious books. I have as much trouble imagining that the dealer pitched them into a trash can as that he sold them for good money. He was an honest, book-loving man; I can only hope he found the best solution possible under the circumstances.
It feels funny indeed that a stash of sequestered letters that occupied my thoughts for more than two decades can now be read by literary scholars and writers. Funny in the sense of odd, I mean. For me, the avant la lettre letters—imagined, unknowable—did their job. They gave rise to a novel, and writing it sent me back in memory to my grandmother and to Eliot, whose poetry I re-read, reaping fresh rewards. Such concatenations—event prompting action, action prompting recollection, Funny’s voice in my ear prompting The fog is in the fir trees and Looking into the heart of light and Teach us to sit still—are what matter to me now. To write The Archivist, I didn’t need the actual documents; I needed to know they existed, and might exert a magnetic pull on a certain kind of person with a certain history. Like the characters I imagined, when I began writing the novel I was contending with unresolved familial conflict. By demanding that I serve as steward of her special books, Funny had attempted to pit me one last time against my father. Her reasons were esoteric in the original (Greek) sense of the word—inner, hidden; so was Funny herself. My task was to reckon with this. Without consciously intending to, I wrote my way into an acceptance of mystery, on my characters’ part and on my own; and when the novel was published, I ceded my grandmother’s library to the terrain of uncertainty as well. That, it seems, is where it belonged: not sequestered in an archive but circulating “in the ether,” as Funny used to say. In the who-knows-where.
Even so, I like to imagine that at least some of Funny’s books have found their readers, as books tend to do. In my mind, each has a pink Post-it stuck on it: This is for ____.
Martha Cooley is the author of two novels—The Archivist, a national bestseller published in a dozen foreign markets, and Thirty-Three Swoons—and a memoir, Guesswork. She co-translated Antonio Tabucchi’s Time Ages in a Hurry and the poetry of Giampiero Neri and Loris Jacopo Bononi. Her short fiction, essays, and co-translations have appeared in A Public Space, The Common, AGNI, The Southampton Review, and elsewhere. She is professor of English at Adelphi University. (updated 9/2019)