Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Where Do You Come From?

How important is it to know where you came from? Let me phrase it a different way. Every family has their myths. Some crazy uncle went over Niagara Falls in a barrel. A great great great grandfather might have fought alongside Robert E. Lee in the Civil War. It could be anything, but there’s usually a story to tell. Do you acknowledge them, broadcast them, or do you simply let them run their course, fade away, and quietly stitch themselves into the fabric of your upbringing and of your children’s?

My family history is steeped in myth. Ask anyone in the family from my mother’s generation. Their eyes will gloss over as though they just dropped acid, and colorful recollections of our family’s perfect past will spew forth in a deluge from their mouths.

They were raised in Camelot. Everything was perfect for them as children. They wanted for nothing, living in a luxury that few people experience. No one felt pain, nor loss, nor heartache. They also watched their parents numb the effects from anything that approached such forbidden topics with an ice-filled glass topped off with a little distilled happiness. But you don’t hear too many of those stories.

However, if you ask anyone from my grandmother’s generation, they will meet you with leveled eyes, a polite smile, and a short response, and change the subject after a moment or two. They remember the outrage and the abandonment more than their children. Such mixed memories, and all thanks to one man. My great-grandfather.

Intermixed in all of it is the antithesis of the great American story. Rags to Riches back to rags. Cohesiveness to solitude. You could write a book about it. Which is what my brother thinks I should do. I’ve been pondering doing just that since we hashed out the general plotlines over dinner last month. I’ve even done some research in the NY Times archive database, finding some articles on the sale of some of the family’s holdings and wedding announcements for my great aunts.

But I don’t think I’m going to do it.

My family was essentially destroyed by the death of my mother. Whatever ties still existed after her passing quickly vanished after my grandmother died a few years later. My grandmother died of heart failure when she was 78. If you ask my brother Chris, the doctors misdiagnosed her. She died of a broken heart.

We’ve had a number of alcohol-laced discussions on the subject, my brother and I. And he makes a convincing argument, drunk or sober. My grandmother’s life, while beginning at a pinnacle of decadence worthy of The Great Gatsby, ends tragically, and for all intents and purposes, alone.

A healthy part of the writing effort would have been to assuage the guilt I feel at not having done more for her when I could have. Another part was meant for my children, in the hope that they might come to know the woman I adored.

But should a family story be shared with just anyone? I am presently of the thought that it should not. Airing family flaws for all to see might open some wounds that are presently as healed as they ever will be. To assemble the complete picture of my family would require speaking with people who I am not comfortable speaking with, and haven’t been for some time.

But the main basis for my decision is this: it’s my family. The lessons learned from the last 75 years are valuable ones, but the history that accompanies them, that created them, is for me and my sons, should they ever choose to inquire. In today’s world of ravenous pop culture, I would be physically sick if anyone were to ever publicly ridicule or glean enjoyment from my family.

Will I write it down? Yes, I will. But if no one ever asks to read it, then it will become stitching, a solid edge to the fabric of my sons’ lives.