"Your assignment is to draw a family history tree to include yourself, your parents, your grandparents and great-grandparents....." I groaned inwardly at the propect of yet another family history report. This was always a big deal in the church I attended and it seemed that this type of assignment was required yearly. Attempting such endeavors with a broken family was a great task. My parents had divorced when I was seven years old, due to the violence against my mother, myself and my siblings at my father's hands. He was into drugs and alcohol heavily back in the 60's and 70's and took his frustrated existance out on us with his fists, belts and once, a gun.
I remember that one night so vividly......my mother, (and I use the term lightly), found my dad's stash of weed and decided to flush it down the toilet. She made the announcement with bold righteousness. Upon his arrival home from a long day's work, he discovered what had happened and flew into a rage. My younger brother and sister were asleep, but I was awake that night, reading in my bed, when I heard the uproar, and crept to my door to see what was going on. I knew too well the penalty for interfering.....a brisk beating with a sturdy belt, slaps and punches to the face or body and being locked in a dark closet, naked, for an undetermined amount of time was the usual punishment inflicted casually and frequently upon us.
The yelling came from downstairs and my mom ran up them to find herself cowering againt the hallway closet next to my door. She looked frantically into my eyes as if to warn me to move out of sight, but I stood there, unable to move an inch. Whether fear or ignorance held me in my place, I know not, but I stood there and watched the violence unfolding before me . My dad was close behind her, waiving his pistol and yelling obsenities. He stood in the hallway, in front of me, facing her and pointed the cocked and loaded weapon to her head, demanding she return his "medicine". Something inside me instantly welled up and forced me to jump between their bodies. "Don't hurt my mommy!" I screamed. The butt of the gun came down on my tiny temple and I went unconscious. Since that event, my mother told me that seeing my body slumped on the floor scared my father and he let her be, possibly saving her life.
Since the bitter divorce, we saw our dad on rare occassions, and soon were alienated from his entire side of the family. At the age of 14, I decided to contact my grandparents and try to see them again. My sister and I sneaked over to their house after school and once again found the love we missed so dearly. We even played hookey and fained illness from school and had my grandparents pick us up just to visit with them. Until the divorce, their home had been our refuge from the world and we had finally found our way home.
I forged unforgettable bonds with my grandparents in those years. I relished the opportunities to just sit in their home and relax. I listened to my grandmother busily cleaning house and my grandfather working in the basement and yard on his fishing nets and home improvements. I learned to bake and sew and enjoy the beauty of the bayfront in those years and carried those feelings with me into adulthood.
With my task in hand, I sat down at my grandmother's kitchen table and asked her for all of the family information. She went to her bedroom, emerging with her huge gold guilded Catholic family bible. She showed me the names, birth, death and baptism records of everyone! It was a gold mine of information and we started talking about people I had never knew or met. She pulled out dusty photo albums and showed me pictures of cousins, uncles, aunts and great grandparents and we shared a few hours pouring over these items.
In the main hallway of the house hung her wedding photos. The hallway was a shrine to their wedding day and the photos were the most spectacular pieces of artwork my eyes had ever beholden. I loved just sitting there on the floor, looking up and staring at them. My grandmother's dress was cathedral length with a splendid, intricatly beaded train and long, flowing veil. She was young and thin and the picture of pure elegance. My grandfather seemed to me the most dashing man alive in his coat and tails, dapper to the detail as their generation demanded. The bridesmaids wore pastel dresses of every color of the rainbow, and even the black and white colorized photos were mesmerizingly detailed. The groomsmen were happy looking, well dressed young men. My grandmother never allowed the framed epithapth of their special day to be touched, let alone removed, and I had to admire the beauty of it all from afar.
Depite the forwardness with which my grandmother presented her information to me, I sensed that she was not fully forthcoming with all of the details of their lives. Most of the family we discussed was from her side and never much was spoken about my grandfather's family, nor was there an abundance of photos of any of them. My grandmother explained it away by telling me that my grandfather's parents were angry at him for marrying her. They had another young lady in mind for him and he declined the opportunity to marry well, to marry for love. She reported that photos and letters to his family early in their marriage were sent back by return mail....every piece...and that soon she stopped trying to placate them with momentos and updates of their lives. Young and naive, I belived her and didn't ask questions....which would one day come back to haunt me.