My grandfather died last August. His death significantly changed my worldview. Ralph’s death helped me see the mythology of my family is not the reality.
And honestly, it pissed me off.
It pissed me off because for the first time I was able, with the guidance of a caring but uninvolved friend, to see the reality of my family. To get a glimpse into how my parents’ families created a legacy of shame and fear. A legacy built around the idea that love is conditional and finite…and over the course of four or five days all these pieces I never understood became crystal clear.
For example, estrangement on my father’s side goes back over four generations. Four generations, I know of:
One: I am estranged from my daughter.
Two: My father from his father.
Three: My grandfather from his mother and sister.
Four: My great-grandfather from his sons from his first marriage – or second – or third (there isn’t a lot of people left in the family able to add clarity to that point).
Let me give you an example. My grandfather had a sister. I was forty-two and found out. Ralph, in a moment of haziness, told me about his sister JoAnn. Well more, like name dropped. Later, when I asked my parents about her they were shocked he told me. THEY knew I had a great-aunt but never told me. Apparently, at least the family story goes – she tried to poison my grandmother by spiking her ice tea with iodine.
What the hell goes on up there in that West Virginia holler?!
And my grandfather’s family was not the poor shoeless West Virginia family. My grandfather’s father was a very affluent citizen owning sawmills, cattle, farmland, stores and some other sundries. How could I not know he had a sister? I’ve gone through hundreds of old family photos. There are no pictures of a little girl. None. Zero. Nada.
At the funeral I talked to my cousin Danny and discovered that JoAnn lived FIVE miles from my house in Gahanna. FIVE MILES. When I asked him about the specifics he had no idea what I was talking about. They all got along famously. FAMOUSLY?! REALLY?!
Apparently she didn’t try to kill anyone else.
I have a feeling it goes back farther. Much further.
Shame does that.
It is hard to tell how far it goes back on my Dad’s side of the family. Apparently, in 1883 some uncles or cousins, Big and Little Bill Kinney, in a drunken rage picked up some axes and murdered a local family. At least that is the story. I’m fairly certain this would make holidays awkward.
Did you notice I mentioned it was a drunken rage. Alcohol. Again. Not a fan of drunks. Don’t mind drinking but drunks – not so much. I digress.
I haven’t even tried to understand my mother’s story – way to much abuse to sort through. Not that she would talk about it anyway. Catholics know how to keep the secrets.
I started this out to be one thing but it turned into something else. I’m sorry if it rambled. Normally, I like to have a beginning, middle and an end. Some story with a point. Some moral. Affirmation or significant intent.
I don’t have one.
Other then my great-aunt tried to kill my grandmother by poisoning her ice tea with iodine…and no one told me…
I write that sentence and realize no one told me because it is none of my business…or it isn’t important. Or both.
Perhaps that is the point – none of it matters. Or it all matters.
I think is hard to write about because I have never talked about what happened after Helen died of cancer. Or while she died.
We don’t talk about it because it might upset someone.
We all make mistakes. I’m not going to hide from shame. It destroys families and it nearly destroyed me.
Okay – that’s the point. Probably.