My late father at 3 weeks old in the arms of his father, my grandfather. My great Aunts Josie and Millie are peeking out of the door, and I think the older woman sitting on the stoop is their mother, but am not certain. Taken on or about July 20, 1935. This is the only photo I have of my paternal grandfather.
Family is a funny thing. Growing up, and even as an adult, I marveled at (and sometimes envied) the people I knew who used to have these giant family gatherings. The families where everyone went to every major occasion and holiday.
Now of course, as an adult, you realize that even those perfect seeming families who took lots of photos together and got together often are not perfect after all, and had their issues. But when I was little, because so much of my family seemed fractured and fragmented, it seemed like a more perfect world than my own.
I loved a lot of my childhood. I have written about it here. But I also have memories I don’t love, yet are part of my personal history.
My father visiting my Great Aunt Josie in May, 1941 in Washington DC. My aunt was part of the civilian war effort down there during World War II.
I have never understood the relationship between my father and his siblings (my aunt and uncle.) I know that he loved his sister a great deal growing up and doted on her as an older brother would. The relationship with his brother seemed to be more competitive for lack of a better description. Even when I was a child, they never felt close. When they were together it was stiff and awkward. You could always feel the undercurrent of the unsaid.
For a while as a very small child I remember huge Christmas gatherings in South Philadelphia at my great aunts’ and uncle’s home. There were also family gatherings at My Great Aunt Rose and Uncle Carl’s. I loved going to both of those houses. It was awesome.
I never remember such family gatherings at my paternal grandparent’s home. I remember few visits to my father’s parents that were true family gatherings….or truly comfortable.
My father in his mother’s arms. July 20, 1935.
The family dynamics on my father’s side have always been complicated. There were second and third cousins I never knew I had until I was well into adulthood because I never saw them. There were related to great aunts and uncles on my paternal grandfather’s side. And for whatever reason, my grandfather Pop Pop had siblings he was close to, and siblings he wasn’t close to. I never had a score card, so the “why” always depended upon who was telling the story. I would go to occasional family funerals and weddings and marvel at the room full of people who resembled me, yet I did not know. There was also to be considered to whom my parents spoke to and didn’t speak to. Only that part of the fractured family dynamic wasn’t as obvious when I was a child.
I remember in my father’s parent’s home photos of my aunt at her marriage, and my uncle. I do not remember seeing one of my parent’s wedding. It very well could have been there in the living room with other photos, but the ones I remember were of my aunt and uncle. My father’s sister was a very beautiful traditional bride. My uncle’s wedding photo to his first wife was different. It seemed more like a hippy wedding by comparison. My mother was an elegant bride. She had designed her own wedding gown and it was extraordinary and my sister wore it to her wedding. But again, I do not remember a photo of my parents with the photo of my aunt and uncle.
I remember vaguely an overnight with cousins at my paternal grandparents’ home when I was very little. I do not believe my sister was old enough to be there. I don’t remember having fun. But I rarely did with my aunt’s children. I did not measure up to whatever standards were set is how I always felt, and I always felt judged. They also were not very warm people except to their immediate family unit.
Growing up, I remember things like calling my paternal grandmother to tell her I did something and her not saying anything remotely grandmotherly like “oh isn’t that nice.” What she did was tell me every time I made the mistake of wanting to tell my grandmother something as a child she would always just tell me as a way of a reply about the things my aunt’s daughters did that were so much better. If I made brownies, one of my aunt’s children made baked Alaska. It’s how it went. My maternal grandmother was the polar opposite. She would do things like fill the front hall with balloons to surprise us when we came home.
However, I will say as an adult, I did not have a bad relationship with my paternal grandmother. In fact I understood her a lot better and I think small grandchildren were never her forte, but adult grandchildren she could relate to. Or maybe it was I could relate to her better as an adult. In those last years after she was in the nursing home, I enjoyed visiting her. I really think it was because that was when in our relationship we had our first and only one on one time. It was during this time I came to know her as the truly strong and independent woman that she was.
A lot of my father’s immediate family were not nice to my mother. I remember that distinctly. I often wondered if those adult relationships had a trickle down effect to my generation.
I will freely admit I do not really have a relationship, nor did I ever have a relationship with any of the children of my late father’s siblings. I tried with a couple of them here and there, but my uncle’s children have always been strangers since my uncle and father never really spoke much that I was aware of (and they moved out of the area when they were little and my uncle and his first wife divorced and then my uncle remarried), and my aunt’s children just never really wanted to bother being family. There was them, and there was us. Just what it was.
I have three distinct memories of my late father’s brother, my uncle.
The first memory was at a party in honor of my Great Aunt Rose that was held at the Lakeside Inn in Limerick, PA (I always thought of it as Collegeville.) We were all there and it was multi-generational. It was a really grown up thing, so it was very cool as a child to be included.
My father’s brother, my uncle, was there with his children. He asked all of the kids if we wanted to go to the lower level of the restaurant where they had a gift shop. (O.k. what kid doesn’t want to go visit a gift shop???). The gift shop had all sorts of local crafts and little things. My uncle then proceeded to buy his children every other cousin something except my sister and I.
We did not say anything, but my Great Uncle Carl saw the kids coming back up the stairs with their new treasures purchased by my father’s brother. My Uncle Carl was a sweet and gentle man, and quick as a wink with a smile on his face, he took us (my sister and I) back downstairs and asked us to pick something out. I remember still what I picked out and I had it until it literally fell apart decades later – a small owl pillow maybe like 8 inches tall.
As an adult I often wonder if this is one of the reasons I like owl things. Because of that memory of my Great Uncle Carl being our hero that day with his kindness. It was awful to be made as a child to feel so small. And I was old enough at the time to feel very crappy at being a casualty of war between my father and his brother. My father was never petty towards his siblings’ children. I do remember that.
The second memory was much later on. It was before my grandmother died in 2000, but not long before. Grandmom as I called her was living (along with my Great Aunt Josie) in a nursing home.
My grandmother was dying. I went one time before she died with my father to see her. They had not had a great relationship throughout the years. As a matter of fact there were large periods of time when they did not speak after my paternal grandfather had died. My grandmother not too long after my grandfather died moved in with my aunt and her family. Interestingly enough, until my grandmother was in a nursing home I never saw her one on one. There were always other of my aunt’s family around. Like a chaperone.
Anyway, this one visit when I went with my father, my uncle had come down from New York State where he lived to see my grandmother. He always stayed with my aunt. My aunt and uncle always seemed to be quite close. Which is probably why growing up it always seemed to be them versus my father. Mind you, I will not pretend my father was perfect, and I never knew what truly went down in those then adult relationships.
I remember this particular time, standing with my father and my uncle literally over my grandmother’s deathbed when my uncle turned to my father and told him he was “a bad son.” Yes, direct quote, I will never forget it. Even my grandmother looked startled.
All of a sudden I looked at my father and he looked so hurt and in pain. My mouth flew open and I told my uncle off. Right there in front of everyone. Yes, not appropriate any more than my uncle’s outburst, I acknowledge that. But in my defense, it was a familial carpe diem moment. Oddly, my grandmother who was completely aware of what was going on around her did not correct me. She just smiled briefly.
The last memory of my uncle doesn’t even have a visual memory. It was when my father died. He did not come to the funeral. Somewhere I have the letter he wrote to me at the time after I wrote to him to ask why he could not come to his only brother’s funeral. My aunt was there and I think at least one of her children along with her husband. I understood people being busy, but he wasn’t. He just chose not to.
That was the last time until two days ago that I had really thought of my uncle. Two days ago, one of my second cousins e-mailed a bunch of us to let us know that my aunt had reached out to her to tell her that her brother, my uncle had died five days prior.
It was so weird. I felt nothing. No sadness. Nothing. But then again, I never really had memories with him except for those ones I mentioned. So it was almost like hearing about the death of a complete stranger. That thought did make me sad, I will admit. So I got to thinking, based on my memories how we all got here.
Family dynamics. The events that bring us together and the events that tear us apart. It’s a conundrum and part of the cycle of life.