Last night, while doing some straightening, I came across a basket of letters.
Some years ago, when my paternal grandmother died, my half-sister lent me this basket of letters—most of them from our father to our grandmother when he was in the Merchant Marines in the 40s, but also some from her father to her, her mother to her, and so on. I never looked at the letters, and I obviously never returned them to my sister—who has been gracious enough to leave them with me and never mention them.
I’m not sure why, but I read every one of them this morning. And, for me, some interesting things have come of it.
1. I better understand how my father came to be who he was. My grandmother was the most manipulative person I’ve ever met (that’s something I’d known for years and only came through more strongly by reading the letters), and from the letters, it’s really apparent that there was emotional incest going on. Most painful to read were the letters (and little spur-of-the-moment notes) he wrote to her where he engaged in what I came to call in my own relationship with him, “chasing behavior.” She clearly made him feel the way he’d always made me feel—that if I weren’t perfect, he’d take his love, or himself, away. And so he chased her whenever she was even remotely upset with him—apologizing and groveling for forgiveness—much the way I would do with him years later. Abuse really does go on generationally. I remain so very happy to have not had children of my own.
2. It’s also apparent from letters from my great grandfather to my grandmother that there was emotional incest there, too. I don’t know why that hadn’t occurred to me as a possibility before; I’ve long known of something he asked her to do for him that was impossibly inappropriate. In short, he’d had an affair with a young woman, she got pregnant, and he asked my grandmother to raise the baby as her own child, which she agreed to. So, my father and his aunt were raised as brother and sister. The story and dysfunction gets worse, and would similarly be repeated in my own sister’s life, but that’s the short of it.
3. Manipulation, emotional incest, and narcissism are the gifts my family tried to give me. I’ve worked really very hard to resist all three in my life, and feel I’ve been mighty successful. I can’t help but wonder if those horrible things would have emerged had I had children.
4. Some better/more interesting things came from today’s trip down memory lane…
-- I delightedly learned that my father had gotten to see some really remarkable musicians—musicians he later taught me to love--during his training at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. I laughed when he wrote: “Saw Sinatra last night. He was ok.” That’s especially funny because years later, Sinatra would become like a god to my father.
-- I got to read some letters from my great grandmother to my grandmother. I admit that I don’t even know her name—no one ever talked about her. She seemed a gentle soul. That single letter in the photo is from her—dated in 1918. I don’t know that I’ve ever held anything in my hands before that’s 90 years old! And I love how simply they were able to address envelopes then. “City” was all it took beyond a street address to get something delivered in Baltimore.
-- My father apparently planned to marry a “Betty” when he got out of the service. First I’ve heard of her. Makes me wonder who she is/was, and what happened to that relationship. Maybe she couldn’t handle it when my father told her (he relays this to my grandmother in one of his letters) that he wanted my grandmother to live with them when they married, that he was deeply committed to her support for the rest of her life (he wrote this when he was 20-ish), and that my grandmother would always come first in his heart. If she ran because of that, God love her—I’d have run, too.
-- When I was a teenager, I heard for the first time the story about how my sister was kidnapped by her mother when she was a child, during a time when my father had custody. My father—an excommunicated Catholic for remarrying (to my mother) tried to get the Church to help find my sister. I got to see the letters written to my grandmother—a very good Catholic—from various church officials, denying any sort of meaningful assistance. Interesting, that.
-- I really found it interesting the way people used language then. It’s the language you can hear in any movie from the 30s and 40s. But what’s interesting is that it came from family members, rather than actors. I guess I never thought for a second that that sort of language was mainstream—and, in fact, was only part of a well-crafted script for the screen audience.
All in all, I walked away with some questions answered, and some new questions I’ll never have answers for because there’s no one to ask. I realize I could ask my aunt (the one who’s really my great aunt), but it’s not as though the answers to any of my wonderings are necessities or would change my life in any way for having them, and as I’ve walked away from my family, and into a new chosen family, I’m not sure that’s the best idea, either. I’ll let this stuff settle down a bit and decide then.
P.S. I just realized how utterly messed up my family sounds (and was). As they’ve cancelled “Dirty Sexy Money,” maybe I should pitch this to someone as an idea for a pilot. I have to say that although she didn’t have his money, Tripp Darling has nothing on my grandmother. Maybe the outrageous story without all the glitz would be longer lasting with fans. Maybe I can get my Emmy-winning pal, Leslie, to write it. ;)