The following post has virtually nothing to do with qigong. Oh, well…. I needed to write it, and it helps me to have a target as I write….
My father was about the farthest you could get from being a gossip. He did not talk about other people or their relationships, and he most certainly did not “dish the dirt.”
So it fell to my mother to fill my sister and me in on the details of his earlier life, both juicy and regular, since we really did not know his mother, who lived more than 800 miles away and died when I was 10, or his only sibling, a considerably older half-sister who lived on the other side of the continent.
My mother was good with family details, both juicy and regular, but she was not exactly an unbiased reporter when it came to my father’s family. His father was 53 when he was born, and his mother, 42, so his father was dead and his mother elderly by the time my parents married. And though she knew my grandmother reasonably well, my mother was a big city girl who had married a small town boy, thereby putting the final nail in the coffin of whatever hopes his widowed mother may have had of her only child ever coming home to live. Though I believe they both tried, there was no way they could have become buddies, for that and any number of other reasons.
In any event, the story my mother pieced together from things told her by her mother-in-law and members of my father’s extended family cast my father’s parents in a less than favorable light.
I, being a literal-minded child, assumed that everything she said about my father’s family was the absolute, literal, gospel truth. I did not understand then, and only now am being to fully understand, that my poor mother was driven more by emotion than by logic and viewed everything through the veil of her emotions. (I say “my poor mother,” because she had to contend with two people who just didn’t “get” things she felt should be obvious to a person with any feelings, namely my father and me.)
The result, for me, was the belief that my father’s parents were peculiar, less than worthy people who were certainly not up to the standards of my mother’s parents.
That belief began to change last summer, when I went through papers and photos from my father’s family now in my son’s custody.
Though she didn’t marry and lived at home until she was 41, my father’s mother had been a lively young woman, who sewed and painted (quite well) and visited with friends and family. She went to college and she taught school, and she was active in the town’s Congregational Church even after my father was born. She named my father for her older brother, who had died of typhoid five years before my father was born. She was the sort of mom who clipped every little mention of her son from the town’s weekly paper.
My father’s father died of pernicious anemia when my father was in college and must have been a sick man for quite a few years, but he had been extremely active in town affairs and appears to have been a caring father. He had been a widower for eight years when he married my grandmother; his son had died of typhoid two years previous, but he had two daughters, the youngest of whom was 13 when her father married my grandmother. She subsequently contracted TB and left a teaching job in her home town in the mid-West to go to a sanatorium in California to recover her health. I know from postcards my grandfather sent home that he traveled across the country to visit her not long before she died. My mother used to say that my grandmother said that when he died, she discovered that he had lost her inheritance and left her near penniless. Well, sheesh, the man died, quite ill, in 1937, which both my mother and grandmother certainly knew was during the Great Depression. He wasn’t the only man who lost money.
Last week I went back to my father’s hometown for the first time since my grandmother died 65 years ago, and my view of his family became even warmer, thanks to some amazing members of the town’s historical society who have spent more hours than I can conceive preserving and indexing old documents—preserving the stories of people’s lives, including members of my family.
They welcomed us—“us” being also my son and his two children—and pulled documents for us, including a profile of my grandfather that I found nothing short of thrilling.
It was written by a woman whose father had been a colleague of my grandfather when both were active in the life of the village (which later became a town). I read it and thought: “I would have liked this man!”
In one of the anecdotes the author relates, he was president of the village when a group of 70 residents petitioned the village to pay for mowing the grass around an abandoned building that had been owned by a private college. “It would be illegal,” he is reported to have said, “to use public money to maintain private property.” He then offered to head a subscription drive to raise money for mowing the grass, but none of the petitioners was willing to contribute, and the former campus remained a forest of grass and weeds. “Wow,” I thought. “This guy understood legal principles! And he offered an alternative solution to the problem.”
A second anecdote casts him in a more problematic light.
My grandfather, it seems, was a staunch Democrat. In 1888, the town’s Republicans were planning to fire the town cannon during a torch-light procession to celebrate the election of President Harrison. Town Democrats got together at a local saloon, and my grandfather and another man were elected to keep this from happening by “kidnapping” the cannon from the town jail, where it was kept. However, they were both too big to climb in through the back window of the jail, so they enlisted the help of a third, smaller man with only one arm. They unscrewed the window frame, the one-armed man climbed in, took the cannon apart, and passed the parts out, and they reassembled it, wheeled it down the street, and pushed it into a swamp. There it remained for eight years, until the swamp was filled in and it was unearthed during construction of a house.
Some of the people to whom I’ve told this story are dismayed that I would choose to repeat it. Your grandfather was stealing public property, they say. The town cannon. Probably a relic from the Civil War (although, I must note, only 23 years after the end of the war, it would have seemed less a relic than it does now).
But the fact that he was one of the men who helped “kidnap” the cannon is known only because he told the story not long before he died, admitting that he was not always the model of upright behavior he was generally held to be and, I believe, generally was. I can imagine him, an old man, telling this story on himself with some chagrin—indeed, I can hear him doing so—because he was my father’s father and, like my father, doubtless honest to the core.
Indeed, among the family papers I read last summer were a couple of letters my father wrote home from college. In one of them, he relates how many of his fellow students were cheating on exams, and it’s clear he believes that his parents will be as amazed and aghast as he is.
Last summer, not long after I finished going through my father’s family papers, I went with my daughter, sister, brother-in-law and seven other family members to Estes Park, Colorado. My sister had custody of our parents’ ashes, plus the ashes of two aunts, an uncle and a cousin on my mother’s side with whom my family had been very close. We had all agreed that Estes Park was the right place to scatter all these ashes, because all six people had vacationed there, often together, and they had all loved it. Indeed, a huge landscape painting by an Estes Park artist hung in my aunt and uncle’s living room for years.
The night we arrived in Estes Park, several of us met in my sister’s hotel room and divided each set of ashes into 11 portions, one for each family member who had come. The next morning, we scattered the ashes on a hillside in the national park outside Estes Park, during a ceremony created by my sister that allowed each of us to speak our memories of each person before we scattered that person’s ashes.
I was at the time very full of my feelings for my father, having just spent so much time with him through his family’s papers and pictures, and on a whim I held back perhaps a tablespoon of his ashes and stuffed the baggie containing them in my pocket.
I had no thought as to what I would do with them. Later that afternoon, while others were napping, I purchased a small stoneware jar in a souvenir shop, put the ashes in it, and when I brought it home, set it on a table beside my bed, next to a picture of my parents taken shortly before my father died.
It wasn’t until quite a while after we made plans to go to Fox Lake that it occurred to me that I wanted to sprinkle the ashes over his parents’ graves. There is absolutely no rational reason I can give for wanting to do this, but somehow it just seemed right to take at least a small part of him home to his parents.
Which I did. I made no particular ceremony of it, but I did it and somehow find it strangely satisfying. I have very vivid pictures in my mind of the tombstones, and the grass, and my hands with the packet of ashes, sprinkling them over the grass, smoothing them in.
I have never really understood why some people who were adopted at birth were so driven to find their birth parents, probably because, although I fantasized as a child that I was actually a princess who’d been given to the wrong parents, I always knew I was not adopted.
But now I think I understand at a more visceral level the need to know one’s roots. In an odd way, discovering a fuller and emotionally more satisfying truth about my father’s parents has filled a hole. I now have paternal grandparents I feel comfortable with. I am happy for me and happy for my father. And when I came home, I noted an odd sense of being at peace. I cannot explain this, but it is real.
I have other ancestors buried in the small town where my father grew up. There’s his mother’s father, a Civil War veteran, and his father’s father, who had three wives and an awful lot of children. These folks, and particularly the Civil War veteran, have also been well documented by the town’s historical society. However, for now I am content to know my grandparents. My mind can only expand so far….