“Mother, do you see these ‘tars’ up in the dark sky?”
“I think God is very kind to put little ‘tars’ in the dark sky for us to see.”
Ethel B., “The Mother’s Book”, February, 1912
The stars were obscured the night we put my Grandfather’s ashes into the ocean. A scrim of cloud was pulled over the sky. We made our way down the path choked with sea grass, pummeled by wind, hunched, three of his children now ragged in their own middle-age. His two youngest children were missing. The twins, my father and his brother, their lives a pattern of twining and unwinding, had both fallen deep into the rabbit-hole of addiction as their father grew still, leaving their sister the burden of care. Then my father and his twin fled overseas to put themselves back together.
The third generation was also present: my cousins and I, a whole strand of us, a few spouses, and even a few children, the fourth generation. There were fifteen of us in the third generation, all of us adolescents and young adults, the youngest nineteen, the oldest, if he were still alive, would be nearing forty. Most of us showed up to try to dredge up some kind of uncomplicated emotion. Shouldn’t we have felt sad? A few of my older cousins tried, lifting their heads up into the night, telling stories, but most of us couldn’t find anything to say. The emotion was so complicated that it became dumbed down, numbed out, and when we lifted fists full of our Grandfather’s ashes and they swirled around us, unwilling to blow down to the ocean and dissipate, insisting on stinging our eyes and dusting our hair, I felt nothing.
He was mostly harmless to us, once removed. By the time we knew him, he was bent over a cane, his bald head crusted with patches of keratosis that clung to his scalp like barnacles. But even in this incarnation he possessed the ability to wield his full grown children this way and that, together, against one another, a grown-up version of playing dolls or putting children in a basement and forcing them to fight, the difference being, as adults, they could no longer feel the strings. Now they moved under the illusion of their own volition. By the time my Grandfather died, my father and my favorite aunt were no longer speaking to one another. My father abandoned his whole family while his father was dying. He disappeared into the ether of addiction and then he went across the world to put himself back together. This was part of the fall-out.
This investigation asks where is the beginning of evil? Where is the bad seed and can you dig it out? If you understand it, can you undo it? But the deeper I dig into scraps of memory and story, the less I find. The ends don’t fit together. It’s like a patchwork quilt disintegrated, come undone, crumbling. And so I turn my head the next way, and wonder, how do you put a family back together? If you can never know where or why the sickness starts, how can you know how to make it disappear? How can you know that it won’t rear it’s head again? Is there a little bloodletting in each generation or a little mixing up, diluting? At what point can you send your own children out into the world, unscathed?
“One day [M.] had asked questions until my patience was quite exhausted and I said to him – ‘Now [M.], run out doors and play, and don’t ask Mother “why” again today.’ He kissed me and departed with this comforting remark – ‘Some day the little brother will be old enough to say ‘why’ too.”
Ethel B., The Mother’s Book, date unknown
My Grandfather was “the little brother”. Now I’m the one asking why. It took Ethel B., my Great-Grandmother, six years (1906 – 1912) to write fifteen pages, all observations of her two children, my Grandfather and his older brother, in “The Mother’s Book”. “The Mother’s Book” is a small, leather bound diary, the pages fragile and tissue paper thin, my Great-Grandmother’s handwriting, right-leaning and delicate, stamped across the page, still bright over one hundred years later. Her words are clear but unyielding. If I could pull the lines apart and peer in, I would. How does a baby become a monster?
If you asked why, when I was a child, the story went like this: He never got into medical school. He could not live up to the expectations of his father. He couldn’t get into Harvard. He married my Grandmother, but he beat her. He had five children, the youngest, a pair of twin boys. He had a nervous breakdown. He moved them to the shore after the breakdown, and bought a motel. The whole family worked the motel. The girls worked as maids. The boys worked outside and dug the cesspool.
The stories my father and his siblings told every time they got together were like a ritual, a purge. The children, my cousins and I, crouched low behind walls and staircases and listened. They laughed raucously at their stories, each one of them keeping a catalogue so awful it had to become hilarious in order for them to bear it. They beat it all back with their laughter.
No one ever did anything about it. There was a kind neighbor who offered some respite. If they could get to her house for awhile they would be safe. But the neighbor never did anything to stop it. Why didn’t anyone stop it? Why didn’t anyone help them, the five children, one of them my father? It’s so dark in there. Do we all turn away from the darkness when it rises up so near?
The second generation does the best they can. They chafe against the spell. They have a lot of blind spots. Sometimes, they can’t bear the love they have for their own children. It hurts to get too close. They find different ways to go far, far away.
Much of my Great-Grandmother’s life echoes my own as I raise my two boys, one hundred years later. My Great-Grandmother and I lie down with our children to put them to sleep. We nurse our babies and watch our older boys play. We shake a set of keys to amuse the baby. We dress small cuts and dole out comfort. There is nothing but the ritual of motherhood. There are no monsters here.
“The Mother’s Book” does not end, it just fades out, as my Great-Grandmother, I suppose, became enveloped by her life and it’s demands. But there is one scrap of paper, the corner of an envelope, tucked into it’s pages. Here my Great-Grandmother wrote a note that she must have meant to transfer into the book, but never did. It is undated, it drifts in the book, disconnected. It is, perhaps, the only clue.
“The evil spirit is awful afraid of Mother.”
Ethel B., scrap of paper, date unknown
But I have no more power to interpret it than you.
Two years after my Grandfather’s memorial, my family gathered again at the shore. My father made the trip this time. He was in recovery, and he’d flown all the way from Southeast Asia. He had a burden to unload, a whole suitcase of family memorabilia, pictures and letters and diaries that went back for generations, including “The Mother’s Book”.
One morning when the family gathered, my sister and I emptied the suitcase onto the floor of my cousin’s motel room, piles of yellowed paper and photographs seeping out like a flood. Somehow we expected our family would be eager to snatch them up and sift through them, to take little pieces home. We thought we’d divide it up, share it. Isn’t it supposed to be a treasure, this family history, this record of how we came to be? A few of my cousins half-heartedly sifted through the pile, but in the end, no one took anything. My sister and I were back on our knees, dredging through the detritus of our family. I caught “The Mother’s Book”. I still have it, ten years later, but for how long? We piled the whole history back into the suitcase, and put it into the trunk of the car we’d rented with our Dad.
At the airport car rental, our Dad about to fly back across the world, we hauled the suitcase out into the glare of the parking lot.
“Well, what do you want to do with it Dad?” He took the rolling suitcase by the handle and pulled it over to the nearest trashcan, a gum-encrusted, sour-smelling heap. He began to grab handfuls of papers and photographs, stuffing them into the mouth of the can. We joined him, bending our knees and gathering armfuls of musty smelling papers: our Grandparents’ love letters, vacation pictures from 1915, Victorian ancestors and strangers. I remember one face staring up at me before I walked away. He was at the top of the can, a dark-haired man with a mustache and a serious face, staring up at me with somber brown eyes. “Dad,” I gestured, “who is he?”
“I have no idea, and I don’t care,” he said, making his way through the parking lot. He was going far away, and he had a flight to catch.
Perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions. What if the answer isn’t in the books and letters of the past, the photographs whose identities have faded? What if the answer is in the choices made every day, the choice to walk away rather than raise a fist? In my family, the second generation is a bridge. My father’s broad shoulders span the space between the sickness and the love. Maybe sometimes, the love was almost too much to bear, the two small daughters who flung themselves at him in complete trust. He had to move away from it, building distance between himself and his children with the drugs, and later the literal distance as he made his home on the other side of the world.
We, the third generation, are finally able hold our children close. We keep one hand behind us on the story, to steady ourselves, lest we forget where we came from. But the other hand, we hold out to hope. We can see past the night. Held steady, we let the light in.
Thank you, Melissa, for shaping the pile of family detritus into this song of hope.