On the Day of the Dead
This is the only photo I have of my maternal grandparents. It was taken at my parents' wedding, before the reception, which apparently didn't turn out to be as beautiful as it should have been due to my grandfather's drinking.
Every year, on November 1st, I find myself thinking of people in my life who have passed on. Last year, a former partner of 20 years passed. This year, I gave a homeless man some money and found myself thinking about my maternal grandfather. As far as I know, I never met him and know very little about him. My mother never wanted to talk about him, but one day she shared some difficult things with me that I’ve never forgotten. It also explained a lot of things about Mom and some of her behaviors and reactions.
Mom grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. Her mother was an Irish immigrant, traveling alone to Ellis Island when she was 18. I don’t know how she met my grandfather, but he was a settled U.S. resident and citizen. The only positive thing my mother ever told me about my grandfather was that he was a gardener, more of a small farmer, raising enough food to feed his family throughout the entire year. In addition to the two adults, there were four large and growing boys and my mother. My grandmother processed everything that he grew and they had enough left over to help out their neighbors. This was one reason they didn’t struggle during The Great Depression the way other families did. I learned to garden from my mother who learned from her father, so I feel some connection to him in that way.
The early part of Mom’s life with her dad were great. She adored him and loved go out to the garden where they worked together. However, when she started high school, her father stopped being a “closet” alcoholic and became the “town drunk.” I don’t remember the context of our conversation, but one day Mom told me about her relationship with him during and after high school. She confessed that she was always afraid to go out in public in the evenings for fear that she and her friends would accidentally run into him. She never brought friends home because of the same embarrassment. She also confessed that every night, after stumbling home at around 3 or 4 am, he would sit on the edge of her bed and cry about what a terrible man he was. I suppose it could have been much worse but for her, it was bad enough. According to my mother, he eventually died (literally) in the gutter. That was the only time she ever talked to me about him. Whenever I asked, she would always reply, “There’s no sense in talking about it anymore. I’ve put it all behind me.”
When she told me that story, it explained why, when visiting me in Oregon, she was horrified that all of the homeless people knew me and my family. I tried to explain that we were street musicians (buskers) and often met them in the park during our lunch break. She didn’t want to hear it and gave me no chance to tell her the whole story. My husband had left an abusive home when he was 14 years old, living on the streets until I met him at 18-years old. He and I hitchhiked across the country, having a very hard but grand adventure. We depended on the kindness of strangers and felt compelled to repay that kindness to others in need. We always picked up hitchhikers and gave travelers a place to stay when they needed it, often donating warm clothes to them.
We taught our children to be understanding and respectful of people who seemed different, whether they were homeless, disabled or of another race or sexuality. When we played at the market in Portland, if I packed too much food, our kids would often share their lunch with the homeless men in the park. This kindness was repayed to me by these same men at a time of need when I was stranded downtown with two small children and volcanic ash falling around us. That day, they pooled all of the money they had collected that day and gave it to me so that we could go into a cafe and escape the ash.
I will never know what demons my grandfather couldn't face or what trauma he suffered in his lifetime. I will probably know nothing about him except for my mother's disturbing memories, but I can take solace in the fact that I care about every human and try to help out when I can. I have loved men who could easily have gone that way and knew it. They both gave generously to the homeless for that reason, probably hoping that, if it ever came down to that, they were building up their good karma. I have always admired that.
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