Chapter 2: Family History

Chapter 2: Family History

 

Those who despise religion and consider it one of the great evils of humanity will no doubt point to my childhood and rage about abuse, cults and brainwashing. Many of the ultra-secular atheist friends I have now would probably consider my parents’ religious indoctrination of me and my brother borderline criminal activity. But in so doing they would be missing the much larger context of my life.

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My parents grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, a time on which many look back and romanticize. Sure, life was simpler back then. But this was also a time in America before it was ok to question authority–whether political, religious or parental; when women were still considered unqualified to do much of anything outside the home. They both grew up in large families with few resources, often absent fathers and mothers who struggled to support their children when there weren’t a lot of options for them to do so.

My dad’s family are Irish and Polish Catholics. My paternal grandfather was a hard-drinking, violent philanderer who gave my grandmother nine children and often left her to raise them while he went to work at jobs that kept him away for months at a time. That side of the family is riddled with addiction, alcoholism, tragedy and abuse. Two of my aunts died as teenagers in two separate drunk driving accidents each within a day of each other. Three of my dad’s other siblings have fought drug and alcohol addiction for as long as I’ve been alive. My paternal grandmother was a lovely Irish woman with brilliant green eyes and a jubilant smile. In the grand tradition of Irish Catholic women, she stayed married to my grandfather even when most other sane women would have left; mainly because of her strong Catholic faith and belief that her wedding vows were a sacrament. But also, let’s face it, there weren’t a lot of other options for an uneducated mother of 9 in the 1950s. She put herself through school and became a nurse after all her kids had grown.

Eventually, my grandfather cleaned up his act and quit drinking completely. He became a devoted husband and golfing partner to my grandmother caring for her in hospice until she passed away from cancer in the early 2000s. Then he  struggled to live alone, becoming depressed and despondent. He died just a few short years after she did.  What I remember about my grandparents’ house is their big painting of Catholic Jesus and photos of their 9 kids and multitudinous grandchildren on the walls. They both smoked cigarettes for most of their lives, in the house no less. I remember visiting them as a kid, sitting in their living room all morning watching Good Morning America while they drank pots of coffee and smoked.

The last time I talked to my grandfather, he said, “You know, the first 30 years of marriage to your grandmother were pretty tough. But I think we did ok the next 30.” It made me realize just how long they’d been together–almost twice as long as I’d been alive. I guess it’s never too late for people to change.

My mother’s side of the family descended from Missouri Lutherans and had migrated to the northwest before my mom was born.  My maternal grandmother had six children and raised them Washington state. She was tall and blue-eyed, with a powerful stare. I mostly remember the small trailer  that she lived in for the last few decades of her life. It was filled with all kinds of random knick-knacks and memorabilia from years gone by. She had a cookie tin full of thousands of buttons of every color, shape and size, and I used to love to sort them. She constantly had Big Band music playing from a huge stereo in the living room, only shutting it off when it was time for her soap operas. She also smoked for most of her life and died of cancer in the 90s.

I never knew my maternal grandfather. I only know that had fought in WWII and came back a broken man. Eventually the drinking and abusiveness was too much for my grandmother and they divorced. She never remarried. Instead, she raised all six kids by herself, working whatever jobs she could. She never went to college, and they were poor. But she was a strong Protestant woman  who had grown up during the Great Depression, and she knew how to survive and thrive on very little. She made breakfast, lunch and dinner for her kids each day; made clothes for them, and was a strong disciplinarian. But divorce still wasn’t common in the 60s and  there was a stigma to being a divorcee. She could only do so much, and there simply weren’t the same kinds of government and educational resources for women and kids that we have today. Despite being a smart girl who liked school, my mom had a rebellious streak, and a sense of adventure. By the time she met my dad she was heavily into the counterculture.

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When they met as young adults they were rambling into the 1970s as the kind of hippies who were far more interested in partying than protesting. They each had more than their fair share of personal demons (which I don’t feel is my place to divulge) and were self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, looking for something to believe in. No reasonable person in their right minds would have considered their relationship a good idea. But they saw something in each other that made them want to commit to marriage. For my part, I’m glad they did.

When she got pregnant with me, something changed in my mom. She wanted something better for me than the life she was living at the time, and she started seeking. After marrying into my dad’s family, mom tried to assimilate with them. She’d converted to Catholicism and I was baptized in the church. But within a year after I was born and baptized my dad left us and moved to Nevada to ‘find work’.

The reality of being married and finding himself with an infant daughter and a wife who wanted him to get a regular job and settle down was overwhelming. He never had a strong role model for how to be a husband and a father, and his greatest fear was revisiting the tragedies of his childhood on his own family. I know this because he has told me repeatedly over the years that one of his greatest motivations for becoming a Jehovah’s Witness and raising me and my brother that way was because he felt it was the best way to protect us from the things he was exposed to as a child. But as a young man still struggling with addiction and self-worth, he ran away to Nevada, leaving my mom and me with his family in Washington. My grandfather made him come back and get us. 

In Nevada things reached a boiling point. My dad was engaged in truly self-destructive behavior. My mom was isolated, away from her family and had a colicky baby. They were not just poor—they were destitute, living in the slums amongst brothels and bars. I went back years later and visited that place. It was sobering to know that anyone could live that way, much less my own family.

Then two things happened that changed the course of our lives.

3 Replies to “Chapter 2: Family History”

  1. I had that button box when she moved to Washington. I wish I had known it was a memory of yours I would have given it to you. You are so brave to share this story. Seriously, it moves me to tears reading your blogs about your life as it was a part of mine, too. It makes me feel so much love for you.

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