Last year on this day we were in Vietnam. The day before, while visiting the beautiful ancient capital of Huế, I gleefully (though somewhat to CSB’s chagrin, because he finds masks creepy & thinks I tend to overdo things) posed next to ancient statues wearing my Happy Hilary mask, so confident was I of the following day’s victory and all those newfound opportunities to refer to Madam President.
While in Saigon, otherwise now known as Ho Chi Minh City but more or less universally still called Saigon, I had located the house* where my Belgian grandparents, my mother, and uncle had lived from 1939 until 1941, when they were evacuated, along with most European women and children, as the Japanese army was invading. And quickly. Because she was a Belgian woman, my Bonne Maman had never voted because women were not granted suffrage in Belgium until 1948, and from 1929 onwards she lived in Egypt, Indochina, California during the war, then Egypt again. She finally came to the US in 1956 because that was where all her grandchildren were. (Such is the narcissism of grandchildren; someone else might have said she came because her children were here, married to Americans.) My grandparents never became citizens, preferring to remain “Resident Aliens,” and thus ensure they could enter the Belgian section of Heaven – Bonne Maman told me this, seriously, somewhat.
While visiting Vietnam, I thought a lot about my beloved grandmother, who never voted; I had weeks earlier cast my absentee ballot for Hillary, and eagerly anticipated the election results.
We all know how very wrong that went.
Which is a long way to introduce the question of irony.
Was it ironic, my posing in a Hilary mask next to a statue of a bodyguard of Emperor Khải Định, whose first wife left him in order to become a nun?
I am pondering irony these days.
My mother received in the mail a “Certificate of Recognition” from the Alzheimer’s Association. She handed it to me because, sometimes, when she remembers, though remember is no longer the correct word, she gives me her mail to ‘deal with’. How ironic is that? The certificate recognizes her “extraordinary commitment to the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.” If so, it is a fight she has lost. Presumably, she received this ridiculous ‘certificate’ because, back when she was still writing checks, she sent some money to the AA and they would like her to send some more. To this end she receives countless solicitations at her new address in Hastings, even though I have never given any organization her new address. It is a miracle of the modern phenomenon of annoying requests for money.
Irony is generally defined as a situation that is not what it seems, that differs from what was expected. Irony is often used for comic effect, but at times is tragic. (See the Greeks. See me sporting my Hilary mask.) The word comes from the Greek, eirōneia for ‘simulated ignorance.’
Another chapter of the Azheimer’s Association sent my mother Christmassy address labels, presumably to affix to the Christmas cards she is no longer capable of writing or sending. They also have her address slightly wrong. What part of that is ironic?
Does it differ from the irony of the multiple books stacked on her nightstand about how to prevent memory loss or how to improve your memory?
Or how does it differ from the irony of me buying a book at Costco this morning called The End of Alzheimer’s, even though I have read lots of actual science books about Alzheimer’s and have spoken with doctors and visited labs and attended seminars? And I know damn well that there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s and I even know that most of the things we are told can stave off the advance of Alzheimer’s, like practicing yoga, speaking multiple languages, and eating healthy, are exactly what my grandmother and mother did all their lives.
Maybe that is not so much ironic, as delusional.
In literature, I love irony. Also in life. Irony makes life interesting. If I refer to someone as living in an “Irony-Free Zone” I do not mean it as a compliment.
On the other hand, this morning I woke up to un-ironic, good news from the elections, locally and in various other states.
* This is true. I knew they had lived at 216, rue Pelerin, and so with the help of an old map and a charming man at our hotel, I figured out that rue Pelerin is now rue Pasteur, and we went to that number to find that there was a house, that looked just like the house in the picture of my mother looking coy in the front yard. It was still there and was now Soul Music & Performing Arts Academy (SMPAA). On the tile floors where my mother once roller-skated indoors (so she claimed) Vietnamese children now dance hip-hop.