My father didn’t have a story: He had his very own mythology.
My father was born in New York City, in 1918. I’m not sure what his parents were doing there since my grandfather Cal was a farm boy from Ohio. Records are scant concerning the family’s origin. The patriarch was supposedly an itinerant Methodist preacher who outlived three wives; he found it necessary to indenture his children at scattered farms; kids who may have grown up having little knowledge of, or feeling for, their birth family.
His mother was a city girl, also from Ohio, who was born into a family of working class German immigrants, who named her Juanita. Her grandfather had been a master mechanic, working riverboats on the Rhine, before coming to the United States in 1854, to Patterson, New Jersey, where he worked for the Erie Railroad. He and his wife Teresa had ten sons who became railroaders too.
In 1918 Juanita was pregnant with twins. The boys arrived prematurely in late April, but my father’s twin died at birth. The doctor told my grandparents that if they intended to baptize my father, they had better do it quickly. Although he was mere days old, my father claimed to remember the splash of baptismal water that revived him as if he had been hit by a surge of electricity. I rejected this as improbable, but accepted the tale, as children must.
My father’s semi-divinity had mundane consequences: his suits had to be custom made because he was built like one of Michelangelo’s overwrought figures that fly up and down the Sistine Chapel in the Last Judgment. Buying his shoes was a lost labor of Hercules for my mother, because like her, he delighted in being difficult to fit. I understood that it was necessary for him to exaggerate the importance of his physical characteristics; he had been an extremely frail boy who struggled to become a viable adult, but with the help of Grandfather Cal, who put him through a childhood of hard labor on the farm, his magnificence (like Conan the Barbarian) was ensured. I found this focus on my father’s kinship with manly men like Charlton Heston annoying. The accompanying psychic inflation took up a crushing amount of space in the family world.
The early 1900s offered few interventions or hope for premature babies. The doctor assumed that my father would die, but a crucial element of the hero myth enters just in time, in the person of a Scottish nurse who materialized from the streets of New York City as a New World version of the ancient Celtic Crone. My father believed that the woman possessed magical power, but her efforts sounded much more practical to me. As I listened to my father’s frequent recitation of this person’s crucial role, I doubted if his survival was due to the nurse being Scottish; it was her daily massages of my father’s tiny body that did the trick. Instead of bathing him, she rubbed him down with olive oil and kept him wrapped in sheep’s wool for the first months of his life. Perhaps he cheated death because women knew more about babies than doctors did. These questions stimulated my interest in how the universe works.
The nurse vanishes from the story rather quickly, but her intervention was so vital to my father, that he adopted Scotland as his field of mythic origin, even though there was nothing in his German / Anglo Saxon ancestry to support a connection. The Scottish nurse, who surely saved my father’s life, unwittingly helped to bring forth a tragedy. My father would claim, half in jest, that he married my mother because she was Welsh (not Scottish, but close enough, I guess.) This statement was truer than we knew. After my mother died, my father told us (I had a brother) that he had known within the first month that choosing my mother, on this flimsy ethnic basis, was a mistake. Much of my childhood was explained by that confession.
Soon after my father’s health was stable, the family returned to a farm in Ohio, where a girl was born. The family was prosperous throughout the Great Depression, farming and selling produce at a roadside stand. My grandfather had a salaried position with a company in town. My father liked to tell tales of life on the farm, of a youth spent as a hunter and trickster who roamed the woods at night, shooting raccoon and squirrels for the table. He especially enjoyed fooling his mother by bagging groundhogs, porcupine, and other varmints, and then skinning them to disguise what they had been in life. He presented the mystery carcasses for his mother to cook, which he claimed she never refused to do.
A ‘game’ woman who had grown up in the city, Grandma had been pampered by her fun-loving German family, but also took to hard labor with vigor, and learned to grow and can vegetables, improvise household goods, upholster furniture, sew, and take care of a menagerie. She cheerfully roasted porcupines; and yet, my father hated this woman with an unnatural passion, and also his sister, presumably because she was female.
What was I to make of this?
Grandpa Cal looked like President Eisenhower. He grew a monumental flower garden, a plot of garden vegetables, and kept a Beagle for hunting. A stream on the property led to a lake, where he fished for bass and crappie; I liked him because he let me row his boat a short distance between sand bars. On Thanksgiving we feasted on spicy racoon, fish, cheese, turkey and ham he had prepared in his smoke house.
My father really did hate both his mother and his sister. I know this because after my grandfather died, my brother and I were informed that we would never again be permitted contact with the two women. At the mere mention of either one, anger spilled out of my father like the creator of Noah’s flood. I have but one memory of my grandmother, and it comes from the day of Grandfather Cal’s funeral, and it can’t possibly be factual.
My grandmother and I did not attend the service. We passed the time picking weeds from rows of cucumbers in the kitchen garden. I admit that she frightened me; I don’t know whether it was due to the influence of my parents, or to a timid soul that recoiled in the presence of an interesting adult. For one thing, I thought that Juanita was an odd name for someone who was not Mexican or Spanish, but German. My father said it wasn’t her real name, but one that she had given herself, which wasn’t true. To him, this imaginary “lie” was proof of her extravagant and unstable nature. (From reports of her behavior, it’s highly possible that she was bipolar)
Grandma was a Joan Crawford type, with a big voice and a loud laugh. She smoked and wore a mink jacket; ordinary things that my mother found immoral. That day in the garden she was funny and pleasing in denim pedal pushers, bright red lipstick and rhinestone earrings. What impressed me was that she got her hands dirty while being dolled up. My father’s severe inoculation against her was undermined in those moments; this memory does not make sense. My grandmother would not have stayed away from her husband’s funeral, unless my father had banned her. Could he do that?
The odd mix of clothing she wore would indicate that she was either getting ready to go, with her hair and make up done, jewelry too, or that she had just come back from the funeral. But why weed the garden? Was she indifferent to events, or was it a moment of distracted contemplation? Did she know that she would never see me again? Perhaps she had been assigned to look after me while everyone else went off for a meal or to visit somewhere. The full complement of relatives could have been standing a few yards away, and I simply paid no attention that they were present.
My father kept his threat over the decades, and refused to reveal the whereabouts of his mother and sister, but in the 1980s, I came across a postcard in a box of photos at my parent’s house. It bore a postmark from 1959.
“I waited for two hours at the airport, for your parents to bring you to see me. Maybe next time. Love, Grandma.”
The picture of my grandmother as an evil woman, out to wreck the world, was forced on us as children, but when I read that card my father’s myth about her burned to ash.
After I was diagnosed bipolar in 1986, my father recognized that his mother had been manic depressive. I shared the qualities he had hated in her, but if he had noticed, he kept it to himself. He said he was sorry that the defect had likely descended through his family, and asked if the lithium I had begun taking would cure the problem. When I said that I would need to take it for the duration, he looked stricken. Did this revelation of a brain disorder change my father’s hatred for his mother into something else, like a recognition that his childhood version of the family fell short? That tragedy unfolds on so many levels and people do the best they can? He never mentioned my “link” to her again.
It turned out that Grandpa Cal had moved the family back to Ohio in order to isolate Juanita from the enticements of big city spending. Even so, in the farming community where they lived, she had a reputation for getting other women to spend their husband’s money, usually on clothes, or decorating the house.
Grandfather Cal did love her; my grandparents had divorced when my father was in high school, but remarried soon after he left for college. I suspect that he had promoted the break up. Perhaps he hated his mother, not just for her bipolar behavior, but because she was competition for his father’s love.
A message I posted on the internet after my father died was answered (amazingly) by a distant family connection, who sent photographs of Juanita’s family: her grandparents, her father and mother, and nine uncles, along with family records dating to the 1600s, from a village church in Bavaria.
My grandmother had moved to Los Angeles after my father took away her house in Ohio. She died before I knew where she had gone. I hope that her extravagance and exuberance found room to expand in that sunny environment. The saddest realization for me was that the one person in the family with whom I had so much in common, had been kept away from me, and I would never know what we had in common.