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Connections

I was inspired by a recent post on a book review blog I follow to go through old pictures looking for photographic proof that I have been an avid reader since a very young age. I’m not sure that proof exists, even though any picture snapped during my childhood should have had a better than average chance of catching me with a book in my hand given the amount of time I spent reading. Reading isn’t, of course, the most photogenic activity so I didn’t have much hope of finding what I wanted but after petitioning my mom for access to her store of photos, I sat down and dug in. It turns out that the box and album she presented me with were primarily photos given to her by my paternal grandmother (many of my childhood photos are apparently boxed away in a location unknown to anyone in the family).

I’m not a woman who makes connections easily nor do I possess much skill at holding on to those connections I do make but I was filled with an ineffable sadness and a very real sense of grief as I flipped through picture after picture of people I didn’t know, as well as images of people I do or, more often, did know but not nearly as well as I should have. I was struck by a pretty simple fact: when you lose both sets of grandparents by your teen years, you’ve never made it through exactly the wrong age range to know that outside of your self-centered adolescent world, some of the people you love most have an entire history of amazing experiences that you’ll never be able to ask them about. It’s an irony that doesn’t go unnoticed by me that I’ve always enjoyed the fact that my father’s side of the family was filled with inveterate storytellers and that my college application essay described my desire to capture that oral history.

Flipping through the photos I realized there are questions I didn’t even know I could or should ask. I spent a lot of time with my (paternal) grandparents when I was a child and those memories are some of the happiest ones I have. Grandma and I would sit across from each other for hours playing cards (Spite and Malice was our game of choice) at the old oak kitchen table that had been waxed so often that I could scrape my thumbnail across it and leave a mark. In a way, her stories became the mythology of my childhood. She seemed to make her life a song, with notes of joy and pain a harmony woven throughout. Sometimes she’d pause part-way through, shaking her head as if amazed she’d lived through it. Her husband running cattle on a Spanish land grant that stretched 100 miles along each side. Hustling the boys out the door in the middle of the night because a dream had warned her that he was on the way home from the bar, drunk and ready for a fight. The shop she opened in that small New Mexico town after the divorce – one of the first to sell “ready-to-wear.” The bobcat my father brought home to raise and the rattlesnakes in jars that startled her when she came on them unaware. She was a conjurer, making my father suddenly appear as a mischievous child who tried to ride the milk cow instead of an angry man who saw rebellion in nothing more than the flicker of an eye. Looking at her photographs today made it clear that there was so much more to know about her life, as well as my grandpa’s.

As much as I learned about my grandma from her stories, I know next to nothing about my grandfather’s history. He was actually my grandma’s second husband and not my father’s biological dad – a man I never met. Oddly, the stories Grandma told were all about her first husband so even second-hand knowledge of the man who was always just “Grandpa” to me is nearly non-existent. When I was in my early teens, my grandfather committed suicide. He walked to the end of the driveway and shot himself – the assumption being that he was ensuring my uncle, who was visiting at the time, would be the one to find him when he went to collect the mail rather than being discovered by my grandmother, who had been struggling with health issues for some time. It’s hardly a surprise that there were a lot of questions bounced around in my family relating to “Why didn’t we know?” and “What could we have done to prevent it?” Just after the funeral, my grandma told my youngest brother and I that Grandpa has been wondering why we never came to visit much any more. That question was a painful wound that I carried around for a long time. As I flipped through pictures of him, I was struck by the fact that even as a much younger man, he always looked old, as if he had carried more than his share of sorrow his entire life. All I knew of him was that he loved listening to baseball games on the radio, he had a tattoo on his arm, he smoked, he was an amazing carpenter, and he loved me and my brothers without reserve, just as we loved him. As much as I wish I had known him better, I think at least maybe we got the most important part exactly right with that last bit of “knowing.”Even the small set of photos my grandmother had that were from my childhood were a revelation to me. I can dredge up memories for far less than half the occasions depicted in the photographs and although snapping pictures is, of course, usually done during the happy times, seeing the joy on my father’s face as he held or played with his children was something of a slap in the face to me because that joy is not what I remember from childhood and I’m at a loss as to how to parse the truth behind it all.Worth more than a little consideration now is what kind of (deeper) relationship I can create with my immediate family. I don’t know that I can manage it with my father. I’ve built walls there that I can’t even begin to understand how to dismantle, even if I had the desire. My mother has reached a point where her memory is slowly fading and sometimes even remaking itself on-the-fly and if I’m ever going to make sure we both know each other as adults, outside of the parent-child bond, now is the time to do it. It may also be a good time to look at the relationships I maintain now, how much of myself I’m willing to expose, and what legacy (not in some grand dynastic sense but just in terms of the connections I make) I am making for myself and those I love.

Maybe your forties is a typical time to kick-off an existential crisis, start wondering about the paths your life has taken, consider what legacy you are  going leave behind, or begin to regret what you’ve let slip by in the rear-view as you tried to follow the map to your future. I don’t know whether this is a passing phase or a permanent change in perspective. I just know that today I was able to let long overdue tears of regret for things I’ve  lost fall unchecked and as rich as I’ve felt to have had those family connections, I feel equally poor for not recognizing in time how much deeper they could have been.