Thursday, January 28, 2010

Blogging Therapy and A Revelation

I'm not sure exactly what my intention was when I started blogging... I think I just wanted to be a part of it, as at the time several of my Allrecipes buddies either had blogs or were delving into this unchartered territory along with me when I first took my plunge. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had visions of being the next Pioneer Woman, as if somehow writing about my day-to-day existence and sharing a few recipes would catapult me to international stardom. But in real life, I just wanted to write about random thoughts and experiences, just to get it out. I've always found writing to be very therapeutic for me, regardless of who may or may not read it. Once in a while you write something and it teaches you something about yourself that really changes some aspect of your life.

And that is what happened to me a couple posts ago.

After months of warily eyeing the intimidating machine on my desk called "the scanner", I finally decided to put it to use. And much like I do in my cooking, I winged it, because I was too impatient to wait for my husband to get home and explain the goings on and I hate reading manuals. And like many other things, the scanner turned out to be a all bark, no bite and a surprisingly user-friendly piece of equipment. It is my new best friend!

So, if you look back at recent posts you'll see a bit of my family history. Posting those photos of my Dad's family has inspired me to delve back into genealogy, a hobby I've really only tinkered with until now. I know that one of my ancestors, Samuel Woods, came to Massachusetts in 1620. That's the year the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock! Of course, you know me, day late and a dollar short....I am as much a Mayflower descendent as I am an extra in Motley Crue's "Kick Start My Heart" video. Samuel must have missed the first boat and showed up on the next one, and centuries later, I stood on my hotel balcony wondering what all those floodlights swirling around from the vicinity of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go were all about, opting to order a big platter of nachos and watch "The Bear" on HBO instead of mosying down the strip into MTV stardom.

But I'm not bitter. Samuel actually did some pretty cool stuff himself, and his grandson was a Revolutionary War hero. Hey, we are who we are.

Then came Mom's family, and the sad story of her childhood, how the kids were split up and how they reunited. All that stuff I knew about before I told you about Ma & Pa, aka Zelica and Arthur, my grandparents on my mother's side. But now I wanted to share with you something I did not know until I finished writing that post.

You see, Pa was the only grandparent I ever met, but he was not the kind of grandfather you went to visit often, or who showered you with gifts and attention. By the time I came around, Pa had a tough time keeping his own ten kids straight, never mind his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I have memories of him, memories I am proud of, because I would tell my friends at school on Monday that I had attended my grandfather's 80th birthday party the day before...just so I could brag about having a grandfather. But I never really knew him. Over the years, we sort of interpreted Pa based upon the stories our parents told about him, and my only personal impression of him was of the old man, sitting in the corner smiling, and occasionally mumbling something in French to one of the few people who understood the language. I can't say I knew him well, if I knew him at all.

When my grandmother, Zelica, died, leaving behind Pa and ten children, mom and my aunts always said "Pa couldn't take care of ten kids. He was an alcoholic, he was poor and they took us all away from him. He was not fit to raise us." One Christmas, my Aunt Loretta, who lived near Pa and his second wife, was all up in arms because Pa had knocked on her door and run away after leaving a Christmas gift on her doorstep - a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of Scotch. I remember her ranting, "What kind of father does that? And he signed the card 'Love, Arthur!'???"

His alcoholism was never a secret. In his retirement he would walk a mile or so through his neighborhood to the local bar, have a few drinks, and pick up a loaf of bread on the way home so he could feed the pigeons that congregated in his back yard. I would see him as we drove to my aunt's house, either walking along the road or feeding the pigeons in his yard. After his death, I discovered that after Ma died, Pa was actually committed to an asylum, because that's how they "treated" alcoholism in those days. My mother, aunts and uncles never spoke ill of him - they maintained a certain amount of familial respect towards him, but I always got the feeling that a part of them blamed him for the loss of their mother, and subsequently the childhoods they found themselves trying to forget.

I never harbored any animosity towards my grandfather for who he was. I was just happy I actually had a living, breathing grandparent. My mother had such a horrible upbringing in her foster home that I do believe part of her blamed him for the course her life took. Again, "He was an alcoholic, so of course the state wouldn't let him keep us". When he entered the nursing home at the age of 86, she rarely visited. When his second wife passed away eight years later, we attended her funeral - by all accounts she was a lovely, wonderful lady - then tagged along to visit him. At that point he was semi-catatonic. He was blind, deaf, and did not speak. They recommended you call before you visited, so they could dress him and prop him up in a chair for you. That's how he was on that day, and it saddened me to think his life had come to this. A tall, thin, frail old man, sitting in a chair, grasping the attached tray for dear life so hard that his arms trembled. You knew he felt as if he was going to fall, even though he did not communicate in any way, shape or form. The nurse told us he could not hear any more, but you could touch his hand and he may or may not realize you were there - she wasn't really sure.

Pa shared his room with a young man who was dying of brain cancer. He was about 40 years old, but had a stack of coloring books and 1st grade level story books that he gazed at in awe. He was very friendly, and seemed to enjoy the company although his speech slurred occasionally, and after the nurse exited, he excitedly told us that yes, Arthur does speak! But only when he's sleeping, and he only speaks French. He said "I think he can hear you, but you need to yell into his left ear as that one seems better."

My Uncle Paul and Aunt Rose visited him faithfully every single week. That day, Paul leaned over and said "Hi Daddy!" and received his usual no response. Aunt Rose spoke to him, too. She said, "Pa! Someone else is here to's Blanche and her daughter, Christine!" Of course Pa did not respond. He couldn't see, hear or speak. And at this point, no one was sure that he would be able to comprehend anything anyway.

My mother approached, and leaning over toward his left ear, said loudly, "Hi Pa! Its me, Blanche! Your daughter...BLANCHE!"

And the strangest thing happened. Pa took a deep breath. His arms and legs shook, as if he felt like he was going to fall. He clenched the edge of the tray for dear life. And he smiled.

Of the few memories I personally have of my grandfather, that is my favorite. Somewhere inside, my grandfather was still there, and at that precise moment a weight was lifted off my mother's shoulders when she realized she had a father, and the sound of her voice made him happy. It is because of that moment that I let go of any disappointment I might have felt towards my grandfather for not being there for his kids, for not fighting to keep them. Whatever decisions he had made in 1935, he had paid for his entire life. And now, here he was, three months away from taking his final breath, and there was simply no reason to hold any kind of grudge. I had a grandfather whose children were taken away from him because he was an alcoholic. I accept that. That's just how it was, and there's nothing to forgive.

Only now, after reading through my aunt's scrapbook, scanning in some photos and putting my thoughts into words, I've changed my mind. I realize I was wrong - we ALL were wrong - in our assessment of Pa. He did not lose his children because he was an alcoholic. He was an alcoholic because he had lost his children. He failed them. He let them go, releasing his paternal rights in the hopes they would all be adopted into better homes, and he regretted it the rest of his life. He drank to forget, he remarried to have someone to talk to because he was afraid of his children rejecting him. He did not pretend to be a father, because he felt he had been an unworthy one. That is why he kept his distance. That is why he chose to speak in French, even though he knew English. That is why he signed his Christmas cards "Love, Arthur".

And so, Pa, Grandpa, Arthur....I do not forgive you because there is nothing to forgive. But I hope you can forgive us for the way we thought of you all those years. Some of your children are with you now, probably laughing with you over the big misunderstanding that life can sometimes be, and I just wanted to let you know that I can laugh with you now, too. I am sorry none of us had the insight to realize the loss, the humiliation and the pain you endured over the years, and that our perception of you was clouded by our own insecurities. But this crazy world of blogging, which you know absolutely nothing about, has shown its worth to me by letting me learn to know who you were and who you are.


Lissaloo said...

That is a beautiful story, and I love all the great pictures you have.

Chicago Mom said...

Wow, what a brilliant story - and deduction - you made there! Sometimes you need to be 'outside' the story to see the inside of it.

Gracey said...

I loved your story.

Willoughby said...

Fabulous! This was such a wonderful story and so well written. Very moving, Christine.