Wednesday, 10 October 2007

The Family Tree

I've been thinking about genealogy lately. My mother and her twin sister have spent quite a bit of time researching their side of the family. And my mother-in-law has researched her and her husband's family trees (and found a branch of the family in Australia thanks to me).

They have names and dates, but I'm interested in the emotional genealogy. I can only go back one or two generations of my parents' emotional family trees, but I think they reveal a lot.

What started me on this subject was the realisation last summer that my niece is following her mother's parenting footsteps. I wondered what made my sister become what she became, i.e. a single parent with four children who stayed in a disastrous marriage far too long and blamed my parents' divorce for that. Where did this all begin?

On my mother's side, I know a lot about her maternal grandmother because my aunt wrote a story about it (which I rewrote and she never acknowledged). My great-grandmother was one of several children of a Baptist minister. She married a farmer/Baptist minister and they went to live on his parents' farm in Missouri. They had four children, the youngest of whom died at the age of 2 (cause unknown but most childhood illnesses could have been the cause). Then my great-grandfather suffered a sunstroke after helping to dig a grave for a friend on an unseasonably hot March day. He was bedridden till that August, when he forced himself out of bed to bring in the harvest. He suffered a relapse and my great-grandmother, with three young children at home, could no longer cope with nursing him. She sent him to a state hospital, asking them to contact her if he got worse. He pined for his family apparently and died after banging his head on the wall repeatedly.

These are the facts as I know them. But I wonder if there's more. Did he suffer from manic depression? Was that the real cause of his illness? And whose grave was he helping to dig? Could it have been Riley's, the little boy they lost to illness?

After her husband's death, my great-grandmother had to sell the farm as she couldn't manage it herself. She moved her family to town, where she took on a variety of jobs to support them. As her three children grew to adulthood, they moved to Wyoming one by one. She followed them there, living with one child, then another. She sold beauty products door to door (don't know if she made much money in Wyoming). Eventually the three children married and had families of their own. She lived next door to my grandmother in a tiny house for many years. My mother and her twin sister slept in that house every night because there was no room for them in their own, but did so gladly. Despite all her many misfortunes, my great-grandmother was by all accounts a loving and lovely woman. Even my father said that. She died of stomach cancer before I was born.

Her daughter, my grandmother, was a much more complicated character. The loss of her beloved father, whom she physically resembled, was a big shock apparently. As the oldest, she was expected to take on many duties in raising her siblings. Though she and her sister were less than two years apart, they apparently were great rivals. My great-aunt was an ethereal sort who loved to pray and play the piano. She looked like her attractive mother and behaved like her as well. Her grandchildren remember her fondly. Oddly enough, she married a man who resembled her father. My grandmother was the late bloomer.She married my grandfather when in her 30s after years spent as a teacher. She had a son quite quickly, whom she doted on. Three years later she was due to give birth again. Little did she know she would soon be giving birth to twins. When she got pregnant, she had been taking Lydia Pinkham, a popular tonic at the time for women's "ailments" which consisted of mostly alcohol. My tee-total grandmother must have been legless. My grandfather always told the story that after the twins were born, she got up from bed, found the Lydia Pinkham bottle and threw it as hard as she could out the back door.

My great-grandmother moved in to help with the twins, who had colic their first year. I don't think my grandmother ever wanted girls or twins and she got both. She had a tempestuous relationship with her daughters her whole life. But her son could do no wrong. My grandfather had two jobs to support his family so wasn't home very often and was sleeping when he was. He had run away from home in Missouri at the age of 15 after a severe beating from his older brother. He was the youngest and was much favoured by his many sisters. But I wonder now if he didn't have a bit of a temper because of a newspaper clipping my mother recently sent me. It was an article about Wyoming pioneers. It mentioned him leaving a job after a fight with his boss. Just made me wonder. But his daughters adored him till the day he died, even after many strokes left him incontinent and prone to attacks of paranoia. He was a great man in many ways. Even my father said that.

My mother and her sister were and are each other's best friend and worst enemy. I think my grandmother encouraged this as a divide and conquer strategy. The twins both have a terrible temper, suffer from depression (especially my mother) and insecurity. I could tell you stories that would make your hair curl (or straighten if it's already curly). My father tells the story of my mother taking out her frustration on a sewing machine, repeatedly beating it with something. He told her to stop, but her grandmother, who had given her the sewing machine, told my dad that it was my mother's machine and if she wanted to beat it that was her business. So this temper was coddled and tolerated (if not encouraged).

My mother tried to recreate her relationship with her sister with my dad, who in his way encouraged it. There was the rivalry. I think my mother was extremely jealous of my dad's career. There was the paranoia. There was the name-calling and hitting (mostly on my mother's end). There was the belittling and petty arguments. Sunday was fight day in our house. My mother threatened divorce many times, threatened suicide almost as many. Yet it was my dad who finally left. And I was saddened by the end of our family life, as dysfunctional as it was, because at least I had a place in it. I was the youngest of three children. We had messed-up parents, but they were our parents.

Tomorrow I will tell of my father's side. There are some tragedies there as well.


blueangel said...

Families are interesting groups of people. The dynamics in yours are no exception. I have loads of questions about my family, particularly my fathers' side as they are not talkers.
The trouble with the emotional side is that the information comes from bias sources, it's not like a birth certificate etc.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Hi blueangel. Yes, this is a very subjective, mostly oral history. But I did know my grandparents and know my mother all too well. I think some traits can be traced back through generations.

DJ Kirkby said...

What an amazing post! We lost my maternal family history beyond my great grandmother as all the papers burned in a house fire.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

DJ: Yes, some of my dad's family history is gone as well.

laurie said...

family histories are fascinating. there is so much we don't know, so much that is kept hidden, so many stories and secrets. and yes, like you suggest, patterns.

one of my great-aunts was rumored to have deliberately left her newborn daughter under the bed until it died. she was depressed and my great-uncle was sleeping around, and things were very bad on the farm. it was the Great Depression, as well.

i have no idea if that story is true. but i know that when my brother started doing geneology, my great-aunt strenuously objected. she said he might uncover stories that people don't want known....

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Laurie: Wow! And we complain today about our lives! I bet that went on a lot actually. Think about those poor pioneer women out on a ranch or homestead or farm all by themselves with children. I couldn't do it.

marymaryquitecontrary said...

Very brave of you to write so frankly about your family history.
I think there is material for a book here

Pixie said...

this is a bit cyber twinish .... I've written about my family tonight, particularly my dad.

Fascinating stuff, this family buisness.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

marymary: I've thought of writing a book, particularly about my great-grandmother. She was a truly admirable woman.

pixie: I've just visited your blog -- a touchingingly honest tribute to your dad

Anonymous said...

You have a very colourful family tree. It's fascinating how we can learn so much about ourselves through our ancestors.

Crystal xx

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

CJ: It gets even more colourful.

The Rotten Correspondent said...

I was absolutely riveted by this. Families are so fascinating with all the dynamics and repercussions. It's so hard to walk away from some of that learned behavior that starts so early in life.

Really really wonderful.

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