My sense of Identity has always been fairly shaky. I find my own impulses and behaviors bizarre. At least once every hour of the day I think: “Why the fuck did I do that? Reaching into the pot of boiling water with my bare hands to pull out a bay leaf? That was crazy. Only crazy people do what I just did.”
So not finding the answers in my own introspection I look elsewhere. Namely my relatives, to put the blame on them. I talk to my mom almost every day and we find ourselves not infrequently nostalgic for events from my upbringing or hers. My mother lost a lot of her family too soon. A lucky couple managed to make it long enough to see me born, but none long enough for me to have any real memory of them.
But mom remembers them. And she would tell me their stories, the family history. In our talks the anecdotes come together and a more solid picture of who I am emerges. Why I am the why I am and why I do the things I do. The saga of generations of the women on my mom’s side build brick by brick into a sometimes drafty but solid structure.
Although to hear my mother talk you’d figure the foundation was built on one of self inflicted physical trauma…
GREAT-GREAT GRANDMOTHER, ALMA~1964
Alma was a massive woman. A swedish immigrant, she stood about 6 foot and had a size 12 shoe. She wore massive thick glasses now that she was getting into her sixties. Despite her brawny stature she loved feminine things like interior decorating. As a matter of fact Alma’s favorite hobby was to go out at night fall in her Baltimore neighborhood when the homes are lighted and she could see through the windows at how people had done up their living rooms.
One night she was engrossed in her walk. Walking slowly enough to get a really good eyeful but quickly enough to not look like someone casing a joint for home invasion. She was passing a house, head turned fully to the picture window and thinking something along the lines of: “I would never have put that tiffany lamp next to that painting…” When she faced it into a “No Parking sign. Hard.
Alma put the entire right side of her body in to the pole of the sign, breaking her giant glasses and bruising herself from hairline to knee.
“She had to walk around like that for weeks explaining to people what had happened.” Mom said. “She didn’t want people to think granddad hit her so she wound up telling the truth.”
GRANDMOTHER, ELEANOR~ 1955
Eleanor and her husband Barney had just bought their first home in Glenn Park, Baltimore and were celebrating and doing a little home repair. Eleanor LOVED whiskey sours and had had about three of them when she noticed that the kitchen ceiling could really use a new coat of paint.
So she fixed her self a fourth, lit a fresh cigarette and got out the oil based white paint and roller and climbed on top of the big gas stove. She rolled on the paint with one hand and drank her whiskey sour with the other, cigg dangling form her lip all the while. A combination of liquor, paint fumes and new home owned euphoria made her giddy.
She finished as much of the corner over the stove as she could reach and slurped her fifth drink. With great satisfaction in her domestic skill she turned on her heel and walked straight off of the stove and hung in the open air for a split second before belly flopping onto the linoleum.
“You mean she COMPLETELY forgot she was on top of the stove?!” I asked my mom after she told me this story.
“Oh, yes.” She replied. “Mom told me she was pretty surprised when she saw the ground rising up to meet her.”
MOTHER, GWENDOLYN~ 1988
four years after I was born my parents moved us to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, located in a rural area about an hour outside of Philly. We had lived there for maybe six months when the day for bulk trash pick up came around. People would huck furniture, dead refrigerators and other unwanted items onto the street to be taken away by the trash men.
Now there was an enormous, ancient steel trashcan in our garage that Mom wanted to get rid of but she was a bit worried about just putting it out on the curb. What if the trash collectors thought it was just a regular trashcan and left it? Then she hit on an Idea. Crumple it! That way it would really look like garbage!
Now my mother is not a big woman and yet for some reason she is under the impression that she is. It was this misguided self perception that led her to figure that she could somehow crush this 90 gallon steel bin with her own body weight.
So she dragged a chair over next to the can and climbed up. She readied herself for a moment and then leaped in to the air, right into the middle of the trashcan. The can, instead of buckling neatly in the middle, acted as a trampoline and catapulted my mother ACROSS the garage and into the opposite wall. She laid on the floor in a heap for a few minutes then gingerly got up and limped past the defiant trashcan back into the house.
She sat on the sofa with an ice pack and watched cartoons with me as I played with my new happy meal toy until daddy came home.
When she told him what happened he just looked at her for a minute.
“Why…didn’t you just tape a sign to it that said, “TRASH, PLEASE TAKE.”?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Chris.” My mother looked resentfully at my father and shifted her ice pack to her shoulder. “Maybe because I’m STUPID?”
DAUGHTER, LEIA~ 1991
We were still in Pottstown. The property we lived on was vast and beautiful, especially in the summer. every thing was in bloom and flowers bobbed in the sultry heat, the grasses and leaves a shade of green that was so vibrant it hurt the eyes. But my favorite part of our yard was the Dogwoods. There were about seven of them dotting the front and back of our house and all of them proud and strong, the branches stretching wide and heave with four petaled white blossoms. All except one.
A few yards away from the front door was a dogwood that was close to death. It had been pruned back several time and most of the bark had rotted away. In the hollowed interior of the trunk a hive of Yellow Jackets had built their nest. The flew in and out of a knothole about half way up. I watched them on their errands for about a week in mid july until one day I decide I was going to fix their little red wagon.
Now I tell people that what came next was born of a scientific curiosity. That both of my parents were scientists and had instilled in me an interest in the natural world and how creatures react to new stimuli.
But more likely an explaination is that I was full of piss and vinager and just wanted to pick on something smaller than myself.
Which is why I picked up a small stick and wedged it into the entrance of the nest and stood back a few feet to see what would happen.
A slow trickle of yellow jackets formed at the blocked entrance, confused as to why the front door was now firmly blocked. Then a swarm accumulated.
Then one of the little fuckers got wise and realized the JUST MAYBE the little flesh beast standing nearby was the culprit and stung me on the back of the calf. I jumped and yelped, at which point the entire cluster of bees turned their multi-faceted eyes to me at once and began pursuit.
Our kitchen looked out over the backyard and my mother was washing dishes when she saw me come sprinting and wailing around the house to go diving into the playhouse they’d build for me and slam the door.
“She’s SO excitable.” My mother thought and put another dish in the drying rack.
After about twenty minutes of hurling their little exoskeletons against the playhouse door they finally lost interest and I dragged my swollen leg up to the house to cry on my parents. Dad dutifully avenged me by taking a can of raid and wreaking destruction upon the hive.
…I may not have known my Great Great Grandmother or my Grandmother but they come alive when my mother talks about them. The way she spins their histories I feel like maybe I can know them and that the four of us are bound in blood and similarities that disregard time or mortality.
The two of them reach from the grave and out across generational differences with their smooth dry hands and clap me on the shoulder when I fuck something up badly. With their massive palms, their cigarette stained fingers or cracked knuckles the give a reassuring squeeze and say: “It’s ok, kid. Sure, you just broke a heel and fell off the curb in broad daylight while a crowd of people watched. But you’re gonna be alright. You’re gonna be FINE.”
“It’s happened to all of us.”