When my father returned from service in the Pacific in January of 1946 (he had been gone for three years and had seen action on Leyte Island), he found that his mother had removed every sign of his existence from the family home. Not surprisingly, he never forgave his mother. His dislike for her rubbed off on his sons.
It is true, she was a difficult person–and miserable. So demanding was she when she lived with us in Atlanta when I was in fourth grade that I developed what seemed to be a hearing disorder. In truth–and I knew it at the time–I simply was unable to take her constant yelling at me. When my father and I visited her in Mexico City when I was an adult, I asked if we could drive down to Cuernavaca where my grandparents had lived decades earlier; she said yes–and we could eat in a restaurant that was a particular favorite. She said she would call for a reservation but never did and never told us she hadn’t. As a result, we spent our entire time in Cuernavaca at the restaurant, waiting four hours for a table. She adamantly refused to go anywhere else and I never got to see the city. When we had finished eating, it was time to drive back. My father later told me the whole thing had amused him. I had now experienced what he had been dealing with his whole life.
True, but she had not had an easy time of it during his lifetime. Two of her five children had died in infancy and her husband, who had lost his leg during World War I, was not much help around the house. To cope, my grandmother developed illnesses–most of the imaginary but all of which required extensive stays in sanitariums. There was one period when she was gone from home for more than a year–not a particularly good situation for her two (at the time) young children.
There was more to it, going back to her own childhood.
Today, when I was going through old newspaper clippings that my grandmother had saved from her childhood, trying to find any I’d missed on the lynching my great-grandfather, a sheriff, had failed to stop, I came across one on an incident I’d also heard of in my childhood. One segment of the story struck me particularly:
There were several girls in the party that were jumping the rope at the time the accident occurred. They were taking turns and Margaret Deemy’s time was just up. It was the last jump that she was to take and as fate would have it the last one proved the fatal one and as she alighted on the stone after gracefully skipping the last time, the stone broke and she went down to her death. She was overheated, of course, and by some it is thought that this fact hastened her death when she struck the cold water.
Florence Firestine and Marian Sullivan, her playmates, who had had their turns, were turning the rope for her at the time and have since been deeply saddened girls.
Deemy was 13; my grandmother was probably the same age, making the story from 1911 or thereabouts (the clipping contains no date). They had been skipping rope atop a covered-over well in the schoolyard.
I’ve thought about my grandmother’s experience since I first heard of it as a child–not with any detail and almost in passing–from my father. I’ve wonder if it weren’t even the root of destroying every sign of my father’s existence while he was at war. I wonder if she felt she just couldn’t bear the possibility of any more loss so, rather than await it, hastened it by throwing her son’s life into the trash. I’ve wondered if it weren’t the cause of the extreme unhappiness that led her to make the lives around her so miserable.
She would meet her husband soon after the war, introduced by her older brother Carmen and they would marry in 1920. Oddly, her husband Alfred, who hated his name, had insisted since childhood that everyone call him “Skip.”
When I was born, he refused to let my parents name me after him, so they resorted to use of his nickname. I, too, was “Skip,” though I gave it up after high school.
The incidences of childhood, as much as family names, have impact that lasts generations. My own foibles and peculiarities owe a great deal not only to my parents and grandparents, but even to generations before them.
As I write this, the fate of several thousand children separated from their parents at the Mexican border still has not been resolved. I think of the impact this new tragedy is going to have not only on their lives but on subsequent generations.
And I just want to cry.