“Perhapsing” Cleopatra: Ideas for Speculating About My Grandmother’s Life

I have just finished reading “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff and her style has given me some ideas about writing about my grandmother’s life.

The content of their lives could not have differed more. Cleopatra,  born in 69 B.C., a queen at 18, ruler of Egypt for 22 years, lover of two of the most famous men in history, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, she amassed wealth beyond imagination.

My grandmother, Marya Huckan Zarecka, an illiterate Ukrainian peasant woman born in 1880 in Repuzhintsy, a small village in Bukovina, daughter of a mayor, was married off to a poor and unstable husband and sent to homestead in the wilds of Canada. Both women were mothers, the only similarity. About both, little was passed down apart from stories and myth.

Using detailed research and a lot of speculation, Schiff tells a brilliant story about Cleopatra’s life. Her book could have been titled: “Perhapsing Cleopatra”. She provides a master lesson in imagining and detailing a life where few facts survived.

My grandmother lived a quiet life, out-shadowed by her disruptive husband. She kept a low profile to avoid his wrath and encouraged her children to do likewise. Not many stories about her were passed down, and if they were, consisted of vague remarks like “ oh, she was wonderful”, but with few meaty details.

I  realized after reading "Cleopatra A Life" that I did in fact possess enough information about my grandmother from photos, interviews with my mother and other siblings and cousins, and my grandfather’s hospital records to tell her story using the same techniques that Stacy Schiff used to bring Cleopatra to life. I went back to Schiff’s book and looked for phrases and words she used to recreate colourful, textured scenes and speculate about feelings and motives.

Besides the word perhaps, some other words and phrases used to fill out her story were: maybe, suppose, wonder, imagine, we don’t know if, what if, what she didn’t know, possibly, might have/could have/must have, perchance, suggests, no doubt she…, it seems as if…, she had no choice but to…, these might have been the possibilities, it is likely/unlikely, there is no reason to assume/we can safely assume, it would have been…, we have no proof that…,  and so on.

Just as Stacy Schiff reconstructed Cleopatra’s life, I can now tell my Baba’s story by using conjecture and guesses to assess shrewdly her probable and possible motives and hypothesize what she was thinking and feeling decades ago.

(For tips on speculating, see Lisa Knopp's Brevity craft essay: "Perhapsing": The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction.)