"There's a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out." -Lou Reed

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back in Time

Both of my parents grew up very poor. This is one of the few things I know about their childhoods with certainty. Most of my family comes from an area of Kentucky where to me, a great deal of the area seems frozen in time. Even though I grew up in North Carolina in a very small town, the town where both sets of my grandparents lived, and my parents grew up, was so different and foreign to me.

We visited my grandparents often, especially when I was much younger. During grade school, I can vividly remember long car trips, annoyed with my sister who was sharing the back seat with me, and feeling as though the car got smaller and smaller with each passing hour of the drive. We spent many holidays in Kentucky, usually staying with my cousins in their beautiful house that, to me, seemed out of place from the rest of the area. And honestly, it was.

Most of the towns in that area are indiscernible, rocky, rural, and for lack of a better word…distant. Even through young eyes, I was shocked and troubled by the level of poverty I saw—ramshackle houses, some barely standing, with light peeking through the cracks of the old wooden boards holding it all together. We would drive by places and people that seemed a million miles away from the life of our family, but all the while I knew that my family came from just such a place, just such people.

I would watch out the car window as we passed stores the size of my school classroom back home that served as the grocery store for a whole town. Gas stations looked like they were decades old, with pumps that seemed like something out of an old movie to me. My small town in North Carolina suddenly seemed modern and progressive in comparison.

I would breathe a sigh of relief as we drove across the tiny bridge then down the long driveway to my cousin’s house. Once inside, I felt insulated from the sights and sounds that reminded me of the struggles my parents faced growing up, and I suppose, my own history.

We would always go to visit my grandparents several times during our visits, trekking out for the day, driving around on tiny twisting roads, listening to my father tell funny stories about the people he grew up with, and the characters that lived in his town. Usually, we would first go to see his mother, and she would shower me and my sister with compliments, and always gave us some money before we left. I felt more comfortable with her than my other grandparents, and sometimes tried to draw out the length of the stay. It is only in hindsight that I can remember my father never being quite comfortable during these visits, at least when we were alone with his mom. It is hard for me to even conjure up an image of him sitting in the room, instead standing, shifting his weight, and moving from one room to another, talking or answering questions from a distance. I never met or knew my father’s dad, or his stepdad, knowing of their existence only through a few rare photos, or accidental mentions in the telling of a story.

The drive to my mother’s parent’s house was quite a journey, as their little house was fairly high on a mountain, situated on what seemed like mostly rock, with some patches of grass here and there. The house itself never ceased to shock me in its primitiveness. It was only a few rooms, and looked to me as if it could fall apart at any moment. My grandparents had raised five children in this house, and I remember constantly, for all the years I went there, trying to imagine where everyone slept.

The furniture was sparse, and the floors seemed bare in my memory. An old pump in front of the house was used for gathering water, and at the time I thought it was fun to be sent with a bucket to try and find the strength to fill it. This was in the late 70’s, and my grandparents had an outhouse for their bathroom. The outhouse remained there until after my grandfather’s death in the mid 80’s.

My grandfather was a coal miner, and although I am sure he was only sick for the last few years, the picture of him I have in my mind is of a man dying of lung cancer, brought on by a job he had held all of his life. He was a kind man, very affectionate with me and my sister, and I never heard him talk above his distinct monotone. My grandmother , however, was always a complete mystery to me.

She never seemed to change, from the time I can first remember her, until she died. She always, without fail, wore her incredibly long, white hair in a bun, and wore same wire-rimmed glasses. Her face seemed to be made of wrinkles, and she always appeared very old to me, not growing older. She, like the landscape, seemed frozen in time to me, never changing, never evolving.
As I look back, I can also remember my mother not completely comfortable in the setting of her childhood home. Although I never doubted the deep love she had for her parents, especially her mother, I couldn’t define the uncomfortable feeling I had in that house with my extended family. It wasn’t just the sparse surroundings, it was something about the people themselves that seemed distant and awkward to me. The Hallmark images I saw on television of children bounding into their grandmother’s home full of anticipation and happiness never matched up to my experiences in any way.

My grandmother, as a true mountain woman, was tough and could be abrupt. Although my mother might share with me that she had observed my grandmother being sad, or having her feelings hurt, I can’t at any time remember witnessing these emotions. She seemed so different from my mother and me, who were very-- even overly-- emotional. I couldn’t find common ground with her-- my mother’s mother-- and that troubled me. I saw and heard my mother speak so passionately about her deep, intense love for her mother, and I felt at fault that I didn’t feel the same way. I had so much respect for her, raising five children in the conditions that she did, managing to feed and clothe them somehow, struggling to survive, but I couldn’t find an emotional link to her.

My mother’s stories of her childhood, the few she tells, are of a fairytale type of love within her family. Although she has been fairly honest about their financial struggles, this seemed to pale in comparison to the amount of love she received. Knowing this, and hearing that, made me even more concerned about the fact that I couldn’t and didn’t feel a strong connection to her parents.
As I grew older, we made fewer trips to Kentucky, and my sister, nine years my senior, had moved out on her own, and didn’t join us as often. With the backseat to myself, I felt more trapped somehow, as if I had even more of a burden to find a bond with my grandparents, without my sister to carry half of the load. And as a teenager, I also felt deeply ashamed of the world my grandparents lived in. I was terrified someone would see all this, find out where I came from, and ridicule me. And even worse, I was worried constantly that my parents would find out I felt this way.

My grandmother passed away about nine years ago, while I was living in California. I remember the call from my parents, my father angry, accusing me of ignoring their many calls, which I had missed because I had turned the ringer off the night before. When they finally reached me, my heart broke for my mother, who was beyond devastated, but I could not bring myself to the level of sadness I thought was appropriate when one loses a grandparent. I hadn’t known my grandmother, I hadn’t ever really gotten to know her, except through my mother’s eyes.

And today, I regret that I didn’t ask more questions, observe more, listen more. So much of that regret is because the picture my mother paints of her is without flaws, and is in deep contrast of my impressions, and I am sure the truth lies somewhere in between. And more than anything, I wonder if my grandmother could have, in any way, helped answer some of the many questions I have about my parents, the secrets they keep, and the pain in their past that I have inherited.
I wonder if I could have found common ground with her if I had tried harder, made more of an effort, done something different. But in truth, I think that keeping secrets is a family trait, and my lack of knowledge and connection lies more in this fact than in any lack of effort on my part.

A few years ago, it hit me that all of that possibility is gone. All of my grandparents have passed away, and my other family members are less likely to know anything that could feed my curious mind. But, as I look at the picture of my grandmother sitting on her front porch, I finally realize that what I hoped to find all along was my own fairytale of happiness, something to make me feel and believe that my family history is different than what I know it to be. Perhaps she could have told me something--a story, a recollection, that would make everything all better.

All along I thought I was searching for the truth, when in reality I was searching for anything but. And there is a freedom in finally knowing that. What I have ached for and regretted not knowing wasn’t possible, wasn’t going to happen. I have found comfort in the present knowing that the key to my happiness doesn’t lie in my past.

I still have questions, and perhaps I always will. But more and more, I am beginning to realize that who I am is more about who I have become than how I came to be. And now, as my grandmother looks at me from her front porch, captured in that one moment in time, I don’t see her as so much of a mystery, just as my grandmother…a resilient mountain woman, who loved her little cabin on the side of a mountain, who is part of my history—and just one piece of how I became me.


Ekanthapadhikan September 16, 2009 at 9:18 AM  

Very nice post. There are such moments in life when your struck by a sudden bout of nostalgia and you go in search of yourself in them. I can very well relate to what you mean when you said - "But more and more, I am beginning to realize that who I am is more about who I have become than how I came to be."

I too have my own doubts and a million questions hanging in thin air! But I've time to find that out, I guess!

Eva Gallant September 16, 2009 at 9:33 AM  

What a baeautiful, thoughtful post. Thanks for sharing!

Angella Lister September 16, 2009 at 9:44 AM  

Such a lovely meditation on your personal history, with wonderful and painful insights along the way. You are a beautiful writer, and it seems that, piece by piece, you are filling in the spaces where family secrets once lived. There is such rich acceptance in this. A little melancholy and yet peaceful, too.

Anonymous,  September 16, 2009 at 10:11 AM  

I have found comfort in the present knowing that the key to my happiness doesn’t lie in my past. That line spoke volumes to me..Once again by sharing your hearft you have reached into mine and helped pull out a hidden piece in need of light,

My family is originally from sayersville kentucky, it looks just like what u described, even now.

Im always so happy when you make a post...thank you so much for the bravery it takes to share the way u do:)

Peace my friend

Pat September 16, 2009 at 10:27 AM  

This post was raw with emotions, full of honesty and self discovery. Very well written and open. Thanks for sharing with us.

Helen September 16, 2009 at 11:07 AM  

There is so much that I feel I could say to you about this post... but the most I can get out in a complete sentence is that I understand. I have one grandparent left, and I haven't spoken with him for over a year. Things have happened in my family that make it nearly impossible. But what hurts me most is having lost my grandmother, my mother's mother, who I've always heard such wonderful things about, but by the time I was mature enough to care, old enough to ask and really understand her, she passed.

In these situations, the sadness is more a longing for what could have been than the person herself.

I understand.

msprimadonna67 September 16, 2009 at 11:43 AM  

The history, the past of a person, is so much a part of who one is. It's an idelible imprint that helps to shape and define us. I am fascinated by my own history--what I embraced, what I reacted against, what I chose to remember and what I chose not to. All of those pieces connect together to create the me I am today, and will continue to fit together with the pieces of my not-yet-past. I love reading about the pieces of others' puzzles as well. Thank you for sharing a bit of yours.

RMBPcola September 16, 2009 at 4:38 PM  

Thank you for a good post.

And these are just my observations - I sense that there may be more to it. That perhaps you reached your conclusion on the impact of your grandmother's death (and its finality), almost because you felt you had to reach a conclusion. I detect, maybe incorrectly, a tinge of uncertainty as to your own final disposition as to the meaning of the impact.

You write well, and I have enjoyed seeing your posts. Have a great week.

Joe September 16, 2009 at 9:43 PM  

I have been incredibly fortunate in some ways. I knew both of my grandmothers, my maternal grandmother especially. She owned the Brooklyn brownstone that we and my aunt, uncle & cousins lived in until I finished the 4th grade and we moved to Maryland.
I remember afternoons, after I came home from school, finished my homework, I would wander down to my grandmother's apartment. She would always make a big deal of my arrival, ensconce me in an easy chair, and fill the crystal dish with walnuts. And there was a nut cracker. Just a simple, 2-legged iron nutcracker - and I just loved the feel of cracking those walnuts. I remember trying very hard to get a clean crack - to get the meat out, as much as possible, without any extra cracks in the shell.
And she would sit with me, and ask me questions. And I would try to be so good - she thought I was so good - those expectations were so hard to live up to.
I spent a good part of 1996 working with rural electric cooperatives in Kentucky, mainly eastern Kentucky. I did see areas that seemed like your descriptions. I remember one session held at the Jesse Stuart State Park in Eastern KY - one of my favorite places - and I remember running up the road around the side of the mountain early in the morning fog.
you can't be so ambivalent about this. Your grandmother was probably an incredible person - I mean, after all, she raised your mom, and as you pointed out, she really did take care of those 5 kids. That's who she was. All of us do what we can do, what makes sense for each of us at any point in time. We usually do our best, and that's all there is. I don't need to be Donald Trump; I'm happy being the little boy that my grandmother thought was so fabulous.
So good to get a good, long post on Thinking Out Loud, that I may have gotten carried away...

Cherry September 18, 2009 at 6:39 PM  

My grandparents were a mystery as well. All of them, but one had passed away before I was one year old. The one I actually sort of knew was a full blooded Swede, named Lena Olsen. We never spoke in the same language. My dad interpreted any conversation we had, which wasn't much. One day she gave me a special jewelry box that had been given to her as a child. I treasure it as a memory of the grandmother I had, but didn't really know. Thank you for your openness, your honest writing and giving us a glimpse into someone else's experience with grandparents. Blessings!

Dimple September 18, 2009 at 10:26 PM  

Our families are a big part in who we are, whether we know the people who are in them or not. You know your maternal grandmother because she raised your mother, and the same is true of the rest of your grandparents. What you know can help you understand both your parents and yourself; but in the end we are who we are and we have to live our lives according to the truth, making allowance for our own imperfection. Fairy tales are not true; seeking to live them inevitably leads to disappointment. Great post. Thanks.

AccidentalTourist September 19, 2009 at 3:14 PM  

Our life is what we make it. It's all about choices. Choose to be happy.

Crystal September 21, 2009 at 4:12 PM  

Having grown up, and still living, in Kentucky, you're description takes me back to my childhood, playing on my grandparents farm. I'm sorry you never felt close to your grandparents. I didn't realize just how close knit my family was until my grandmother passed away a few years ago. We still continue our family traditions, but it's not the same. Lovely post, thanks for sharing.

D.M. SOLIS September 25, 2009 at 2:39 PM  

Yesterday I posted about my grandfather who was given away like a puppy when he was seven. His father was wealthy, but poor in so many ways, and very cruel. You write about wealth and poverty from a completely different point of view. I very much enjoy your posts. Their introspective qualities are the foundation for good writing -- connecting with your truths, bringing them out through clear observations and sensitive responses to the world that surrounds and affects you, in ways that help readers to connect with what's going on in and around them.

Well done. Peace,


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