Tuesday 15 February 2011

Lenses on a life

An elderly relative of mine died recently and it’s made me think about the different lenses with which you can review someone’s life, and how that enables you to focus on different things.

(cc) freephoto

Looking through my family member spectacles, I focus on my feelings toward her, my memories of her, my sense of the sort of person she was and her place in the complex web of emotions that makes up any family.

Wearing my historian’s glasses, I think about the times she lived in and how that illuminates my sense of the past. When I think about non-conformist working class life in the early 20th century, I picture her birth family. When I think about changing attitudes to disability, I remember her exclusion from elementary school, and hence formal education, for a relatively minor disability. When I think about the impact of the NHS, I think about her recurring hospital treatments, both pre and post-NHS, and how those treatments shaped and improved her life.

If I put on my social gerontologist’s spectacles, I feel angry and despairing about her low quality of life in her later years, even in a relatively ‘good’ care home and in a much less socially isolated context than many care home residents. I also remember what a lot I learned about being an informal carer from just a fortnight of living with her after she came out of hospital one time.

With my feminist spectacles on, I think about how her female gender intertwined with her disability and her status as ‘youngest child of large family’ to position her within the family as the one who needed looking after. I speculate about how differently this might have played out had she been born a disabled boy.

As a sociologist with a particular interest in sexuality and relationships, I think about how a working class woman came to marry a much older widower from a wealthy family. And think about how complex her class position ended up being, with not much money but some fabulous Victorian furniture.

(cc) Tom

I don’t know whether my relative is going to have an obituary published anywhere, but if she does, it will probably talk about her love of music, her decades of service as a churchwarden and organist, her employment as a physiotherapy assistant, her short but happy marriage, her love of dogs and her sense of humour.

I’m struck by how partial all these pairs of spectacles are. Each of them brings only one aspect of her life into focus. While you can combine some of the lenses without giving yourself too much of a (theoretical) headache, they still do not even approach the rich complexity of a single, unremarkable woman’s life.

I guess that’s something of the enduring fascination to me of biographical approaches to the study of social life.

Cross-posted from rememberingmyhat.wordpress.com

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