Thursday, January 31, 2013

History Handed Down in Pieces

I recently read Mrs. Peregrin's Home for Peculiar Children and enjoyed it, especially the accompanying photos which I think adds a lot of heart to the story. In the novel, the murder of Jacob's beloved grandfather leaves the young man with a lot of questions many of which concern the stories the old man had told of his past. Aside from memories, Jacob has been left with photos that seem to back up the history provided by the grandfather while at the same time raising more question. It put me in mind of family stories and how sometimes you wish you had tried to learn more when you had the chance. (My dad's parents) enrightgrndps.jpg 
I never met my grandparents. Both sides had gone before I came around. My dad's mother died in 1932 a few months after giving birth to her eighth child. My dad's father died of a heart attack a few decades later while loading boxes in the room upstairs from the tavern that he owned. Somehow that seems fitting since he had built the bar and it had become such a large part of his life. The bar is still there in Harwood Heights, now known as the Landmark Pub. My uncle Marty was present for both those events (he was the eighth and last child his mother gave birth to, and was a 13-year old boy helping his father load boxes when the heart attack struck his dad) and it's because of him that I know a lot of family stories about the Enrights. I never knew much about the Enrights when I was younger. My father said very little about his parents. Or, perhaps it was that I asked very little and he volunteered just as much. My mother volunteered much more about her parents. momdadwed.jpg According to her, her mother was a loving and caring woman while her dad could be abusive, emotionally and physically. One story she told was about my grandmother coming home one day to find her favorite dog hanging in the doorway, placed there out of anger (for whatever transgression) by my grandfather. Another story actually involved my dad's father. As a child, my mother had been sent by her father to Mike Enright's Bar to get a bottle of liquor (that's how they did it back then). After leaving the bar, she tripped and the bottle broke. Knowing what she was in for, she broke down herself and when my dad's father found her crying, he gave her another bottle, free of charge, to take home to her father. Years later my grandfather's sixth child, Dennis would marry Agnes, the little girl in that story.
(My parents above)
My mom told me about her sweet, long-suffering mother, but she never told me that her mother was also, what used to be called, a pantry drinker, or an alcoholic who hides her drinking by stashing it around the house. This was another thing I learned several years ago from my Uncle Marty. Mother never told me a thing about this, and that's understandable. She loved her mom so dearly, in her mind, she was able to wipe away any tarnish. Family legends are usually passed down in pieces. Often times the children are far too preoccupied with the shaky art of growing up to really be interested in asking questions they'll later regret not asking. Stories heard in the passing conversations of aunts and uncles will register but will lack the details needed. By the time the child is old enough to really start caring about the details, the people who can best fill them in are gone. The legend of my Uncle Bill's passing, for example, involves him suffering from the DTs, wandering from a job site and being hit by a truck on a lonely road. I've heard a couple of stories on this event, each differ in some detail from the other, each colored slightly by the personality of the storyteller. (left to right below: my mother's father, mother, my brother, sister and father) gajewskigrnps2.jpg It's easy to believe some legends when you have photos to back them up. The hardness of my mother's father seems clearly evident in all the photos I've seen of him. Even in the presence of his grandchildren, he never smiled. In fact, he seemed annoyed, even angry. Yet, was that his mood or simply his face? Not everyone beams when they smile. What was he like before the accident? During the Depression, when work was hard enough to come by, my grandfather was working on a roof when he fell and severely injured his leg. Gangrene set in and there was no other choice but to amputate. What must it have been like, during the Depression, to try feed a wife and seven kids when your disability left even less opportunity open to you? Did the drinking, did the cruelty, start before or after the accident? Did he smile more before an unfortunate circumstance made him feel like a failure or was he always so sour? Or am I perhaps letting the stories my mom told me help me assume the worst about him gajewskigrmpcards.jpgwhen I look at that photos? Writing this post, I called my sister to find out what she remembered of him. Seven years older than me, she has some memories of my mom's parents and curiously, her memories belie the photos I grew up looking at. She remembers our grandfather as being playful, warm and welcoming when my parents brought my sister and older brother over for a visit. I don't doubt the stories my mom told me about her childhood, but parents often treat their grandchildren differently. And now I regret that my mom isn't around to fill in the details I'd now like to know. The photos do not give the whole story.
(Above, grandfather plays cards with uncles)
Which is a bit like what Jacob is faced with in Ransom Rigg's novel. He looks at the strange photos left by his grandfather, remembers the stories the old man told, and in light of how the old man died, can't help wonder what is fact and what is fiction.