| My friend and mentor, Carol Henderson, wrote this for our local newspaper. It is a fitting supplement to my last post: Family Stories.
May 14, 2013
One of my cousins recently sent out a letter about our grandparents on my dad’s side, giving us some details from their lives.
None of us knew much about them. Dad was only 2 when “Frank,” my grandfather, disappeared without explanation. My father never saw him again. Grandmother would never discuss her estranged husband or her early life.
She would say: “Every generation should be swept clean,” in a tone indicating there was nothing more to say.
I find the concept troubling, that every generation should be swept clean. Isn’t knowing about our forebears worthwhile, important for the hoped-for evolution of human consciousness? Aren’t we supposed to learn from our family’s foibles and flaws as well as their triumphs?
A young friend of mine told me, “Being able to break away from the troubling behavior patterns in my family gives meaning and purpose to my life.” But how can we evolve if we don’t know what these patterns are?
Luckily, just before my grandmother died at age 95 (about 40 years ago), she relented and offered some spotty answers to the questions my cousin gently asked her.
I learned from his letter that my grandmother had grown up in the Irish neighborhood of Newark, N.J., and that her father was Irish, perhaps a drunk. My grandmother had kept this side of the family secret. Now she hinted to my cousin that she and her mother were apprehensive about the neighborhood bar on their corner. Had she found her father staggering in the street? We did know our grandmother was vehemently anti-alcohol all her life. But she never said why.
Ashamed of her rough Irish roots? Maybe so, but isn’t it important to share with one’s children the possibility that alcoholism might run in the family?
About our mysterious grandfather, my cousin found out that he was a recluse, deeply introverted. “He had a workroom on the third floor, and was almost always there. He didn’t join in on family activities downstairs.” I learned from the letter that my grandfather had been a draftsman and an inventor. He collected newspapers, magazines, buckets of random keys. Pencils. Was he also a hoarder?
“One day they went up to his workroom,” the letter continued. “He was gone and everything of his with him. Where he went at the time is not known, but it was not possible for the family to locate him.”
So many questions: What triggered his leaving? Did Grandmother ever try to find her him? Not a word about that.
All we know is that the couple never divorced and Grandfather never again saw three of his four sons. For decades, according to our cousin, Dad believed his father was dead, his mother’s silence on the subject was that profound.
When my 85-year-old grandfather lay dying in a Newark hospital, my one uncle who had kept in touch with him encouraged my dad to visit, but Dad wouldn’t go. Like his own mother, my father didn’t want to talk about or face hard things.
Oprah Winfrey and others have said that we’re only as sick as our secrets, and I agree. What my grandmother didn’t seem to appreciate is that we pass on volumes to the next generation, whether we want to or not. Through osmosis, our parents’ prejudices, shame, and fear enter us and take up residence. Feelings that are stuck in our unconscious leach out in our behavior, shape our relationships and worldview.
The burden of secrecy rarely stops with a single generation. I bore it too, from an early age keeping much of my life secret from my dad. My father never knew, for example, that he, my mother and I existed in a tangled and treacherous triangle, that all my life Mother shared with me her darkest worries and sorrows about him, about their marriage, his career, his unfaithfulness, but swore me to secrecy.
There is no sweeping clean. Only through revelation and candor can we begin to illuminate and release what keeps us, and those who come after us, in frozen pain and ignorance.
A few years ago, I started to snail-mail a list of questions to my Aunt Anna and she would write down the responses on the pages and mail them back to me. She was my father’s youngest sister and last survivor from a family of ten—five boys and five girls.
I entered some of her answers on my computer and filed away other replies that I haven’t looked at since. Her answers were clipped.
Here’s an example:
Question: You once said the depression was hard on the family. What do you remember about it? How old were you?
Answer: I was seven years old. I remember wearing cardboard in my shoes (to cover the holes). No hat or gloves in the cold weather. Eating homemade bread and bananas for lunch. Never had money to buy anything until the older ones found work and gave us some (money).
A beautiful doll was given to Aunt Pam (older sister) and me one Christmas. We had to share it. The doll’s face had to be washed with butter, which wasn’t too often. In our socks we got nuts and fruit if we were good. That’s what Santa was giving out in my day. The bad kids got coal in their socks.
My Aunt Anna taught me you didn’t need to be rich, have advanced degrees or accumulate material possessions to be content. She lived simply, loved her family, especially her grandchildren and great grandchildren, and relished Italian food. She had an irreverent sense of humor, feisty disposition and spoke her mind.
My earliest memory of her outspokenness was something I had overheard as a child. She and her sisters were talking at the kitchen table in Grandma’s house. Aunt Anna had been reprimanded by a Catholic priest during confession when she said she had chosen not to have any more children. She had two sons. When the priest chided her that it was her duty as a Catholic to bear as many children as God sent to her, she told him that he could support them. At that time, I never knew anyone who had talked back to a priest. She continued to question authority throughout her life. I can credit/blame her for my own antiestablishment tendencies.
We spoke on the phone frequently. While she had multiple health problems, she didn’t give in to self-pity but seemed to relish entertaining me with cheeky complaints toward hospital and medical personnel who mistakenly dismissed her as an older, silent, compliant patient.
The last time I visited, four years ago, I taped some of her stories. I can’t remember what she spoke about or where I put the tape. Soon after that I stopped documenting her life. I suppose I thought she would live forever.
She died on Saturday, June 8th three months after her 91st birthday. I will miss her.
There was a sign on the door, DO NOT ENTER, WRITER IN RESIDENCE, which led to the hallway where I and another writer had accommodations. My room was the Paul Green room and the second was the Thomas Wolfe. None of the other quarters had plaques on the door or I would’ve searched for a female author designation. Virginia Woolf where were you?
At Weymouth I felt like a writer. I worked like a writer.
Breakfast* on the veranda. I watched birds dart by and listened to a deep guttural sound, more like an improperly functioning piece of heavy equipment, which I imagined might have been a frog. The sound came from a stagnant pond nearby. I didn’t feel the need to investigate.
Back to my room to write.
Lunch in the small kitchen solely for use by writers-in-residence.
In the afternoon, I worked until I got hungry.
Dinner at my desk.
After dinner I wandered into the library to connect to the Internet and check and send emails—okay, I did glance at emails on my I-phone while I worked. Hard habit to break.
In the evening, with a glass of Merlot, I sat on the balcony, writing in my journal and watching the sky turn crimson and transform to a deep blue. When it grew too dark to see my notebook, I ambled back to my room to reenergize my gray cells with a New York Times fiction bestseller.
*I went grocery shopping on my first day, stocking the refrigerator in the writer’s kitchen with salads, soups, yogurt, granola, carrot slices, hummus and a bottle of red wine.
And what did I accomplish? I did address the issues raised by my beta-readers. I dropped the slow, plodding first chapters and incorporated sections as flashbacks throughout the book. And a fast paced chapter, which served as my first chapter a few revisions ago, became my first chapter once again. I came home with a new outline, clear areas for expansion and a goal to complete this version of my manuscript to give to my second round of readers by the middle of this month.