Smiths, this is not the time to keep on at the Joneses
You may not understand why Winnie is mourned, but, then again, you have no idea what the mourners have been through
Two families – the Smiths and the Joneses – live side by side.
One day the Smiths decide they want the Joneses' house. They move in, claiming squatters' rights, but soon announce that they are the legal owners of the property.
Violence is inevitable. The Joneses resist, but the Smiths murder enough of them to force a surrender. The Smiths, however, need the Joneses to maintain the property, and so they tell the Joneses they can live in the shed at the bottom of the garden.
Over the following decades, the Joneses continue to resist. They try the courts, but the Smiths have an uncle who’s a judge and their appeals go nowhere.
Eventually, they resort to violence again. Mr Jones organises a group of cousins to set fire to parts of their old house. He is arrested and sent to prison.
In his absence, Mrs Jones becomes the de-facto leader of the family’s struggle to get the house back. Where her husband is a philosopher and a cautious politician, she is a fighter. She will do whatever it takes to see justice done.The fight, however, is wildly skewed. If the Joneses throw a rock through a window, the Smiths kidnap and torture a Jones nephew. On two infamous occasions – one in 1960 and the other in 1976 – Smiths murder Joneses in broad daylight as a warning to the rest of the family.
The Smiths understand that if they torture Mr Jones both houses will burn, so instead they torture Mrs Jones to weaken his resolve. They put her in solitary confinement for 491 days, releasing her sporadically so that she can be re-arrested in front of her young children.
But Mrs Jones resists and resists and resists, becoming harder than even her husband could imagine. She becomes the visible symbol of a family’s endurance and determination to prevail. She becomes the carrier of its dream of returning home. To the Jones family she becomes not only a political leader but a warrior-mother.
During this time, she is implicated in a terrible crime. The Smiths, who own the local newspaper and regularly fill it with stories about how well they are managing both their house and the Jones house, clear the front page for this sensational story. Soon all the neighbourhood can talk about it how Mrs Jones is a mad killer, that all Smiths are right to fear her, and that any Jones who feels warmly towards her is a fool or a savage.
In the end, however, the Smiths understand that they cannot win. They release Mr Jones and agree to return his house, on condition that they can keep a few of the bedrooms on the top floor.
Mr and Mrs Jones smile for the cameras, but their marriage is over. The strongest partners can be pulled apart by the most banal enemies – time, money, small resentments – and these two have borne the brunt of a decades-long assault by a murderous cult.
Twenty-four years later, Mrs Jones has died.
The Jones family is gathering in the house she helped return to them, and remembering those years in which she fought alone.
Many of the eulogies are personal memories. Some are hagiographies, as happens in every family when a mighty matriarch passes from life into myth. A few stand respectfully to one side, quietly remembering both her life and her alleged crimes, and trying to hold both aspects of her legacy.Many people have a right to stand in that house this week. The Joneses who loved her. The Joneses who didn’t really know her but feel that something immense has happened to the family. Well-wishers from the neighbourhood who understand her contribution to their own lives, simply acknowledging her passing without offering comment on her history. Historians and biographers equipped with the skills to understand that people are neither saints nor monsters. Even the people she hurt or ruined have a right to stand there, remembering it all.
But there are others pushing their way into the room, too, yelling: “But what about her crimes? How dare any of your mourn her? What’s wrong with you people?”
This would be callous at the best of times. But the people doing the pushing and yelling are Smiths. And they, of all people, need to be saying absolutely nothing right now.
Sometimes you don’t get to speak. Sometimes you just need to watch and try to understand what you’re seeing.
And if you can’t do that, and still feel compelled to barge into a wake and yell at the family of the deceased, well, then you’re just doing what the Smiths have always done.