Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Mother's Oral Family History

I have always known who my biological mother is.  She was the same mother who raised me.  But finding out about her family history was harder than finding my biological father.  I haven't found a single person in her family interested in genealogy but me, and our family is full of secrets that we only know from oversharing.

I grew up within a mile of my maternal grandparents and saw them at least once a week for the first eighteen years of my life.  There were certain things I grew up knowing, stories I grew up hearing over and over again, but they were specific and limited.  I knew my grandmother had had ten pregnancies in eleven years.  I knew my only biological aunt had died of SIDS on Christmas Eve and that my then 3-year-old mother had tormented her own mother with the persistent question, "Where is my baby?" for weeks afterward.  I knew my mother had been named after her own maternal grandmother, and that her grandmother had hated her own name so much that she'd gone by her middle name nearly all her life.  These were some of the facts my mother recited to me regularly, just like the story of my birth (I "ripped [her] from end to end") and of my brother's adoption ("she called and said, 'Do you want a peanut?' A peanut is what they called premature babies.")  They were her oral history, and they are embedded in my brain.

I knew my grandmother had gotten married at age fifteen because she wanted to run away from home, but I didn't know she had been running away from her "wicked stepmother."  I knew her own mother had married at fourteen and lost custody of my then 2-year-old grandmother when she became a teenage divorcee, but I didn't know my great-grandfather's name or that he was a college graduate, unlike anyone else in my family for the next 75 years.  Grandma's maiden name was Adams, or Addams* -- I didn't know which -- and my mother hated my great-grandfather for taking Grandma away from her mother.  He "didn't like girls," my mother told me when I asked why Dante had been invited to meet him and I hadn't.  I knew he'd written and self-published a memoir that my mother claimed was a catalogue of his sexual exploits, but I didn't know the name of the book, and I didn't know that he lived within a half-hour's drive of my home for over a decade of my childhood.  I didn't know he was the only person in my family to live to the age of ninety, or that he'd died within a year of "the love of his life," my Grandmother's longtime stepmother.  I didn't know they had given my grandmother a half-sister, who had finished college but who hadn't been able to bear children of her own.  She has an adopted daughter close to my age who has a graduate degree.  They're both on Facebook now.  She looks like a younger, healthier, more affluent version of my grandmother. 

I've mentioned before how my cousin helped me with my search for maternal family by providing old letters our grandmother had sent her.  Our grandmother used to write letters once a week to pretty much everyone she knew who lived out of state.  My cousin had kept several years worth of Grandma letters.  She pulled them out of storage at my request.  She said they shared too much information, that she wouldn't be comfortable rereading them if Grandma had still been alive.  They read more like private journal entries than something you would say to a granddaughter.  Those letters also held names and dates I hadn't absorbed from my mother's oral history.  They gave me search terms, and the knowledge my mother had embedded in my brain filled in the blanks.  My cousin didn't know the things I knew -- even our great-grandmother's first name -- so I was able to fill in some blanks for her too. 

I assume my great-grandmother's first pregnancy ended in miscarriage because she got married at the age of fourteen and didn't give birth to my grandmother until over a year later.  I learned these dates from documents on Ancestry.com.  She got divorced in the 1930s at the age of 18 and lost custody of my grandmother to her ex-husband.  My great-grandfather left my then 2-year-old grandmother with his parents and moved on.  My great-grandmother spent time in the Deep South, though neither I nor my cousin knows why.  My grandmother's letters made it sound like purgatory.  My grandmother lived with her own grandparents until she was eight.  She became close with her father's only sister, whose name I recognized because my grandmother had visited her every week at her nursing home until she died in the 1990s.  At the age of eight, my grandmother moved in with her newly remarried father and the woman she referred to in letters as her "wicked stepmother."  Her father called her the love of his life.  My grandmother wasn't happy there.  As I mentioned earlier, she ran away at the age of fifteen to marry my grandfather.  She didn't know how to cook, and she never learned how to drive.  Neither of them finished high school.  They eloped on my grandfather's birthday, allegedly to distract the court registrar out of asking for proof of my grandmother's age.  It apparently worked.  Their marriage license lists her age as 18.  My eldest uncle was born ten months later.

I've found my great-grandparents' headstones.  My great-grandmother remarried at least once, but she survived her final husband, so even her death certificate doesn't list his full name.  My mother told me she died of stomach cancer, but her death certificate cites cardiac arrest.  I've learned that death certificates list whatever catalyst literally killed the person that day and will never say what led to what killed them, like cancer or diabetes or blunt force trauma.  I come from a long line of ladies who battled their weight, and my great-grandmother relished the easy weight loss that came with dying of stomach cancer.  One of the few pictures I've seen of her shows her svelte figure standing with both legs inside one leg of pants, demonstrating that she was half her previous size and delighted by it. 

My grandmother's aneurism created the same effect.  The weight melted off when she spent months on a liquid diet, unable to swallow most food without choking.  She recovered though and was unhappily battling her weight again by the time she died some fifteen years later.  One of my last memories of her was of visiting her and my grandpa's duplex and witnessing one of her daily weigh-ins.  She had gained weight and was disappointed.  She was in her seventies. 

Mental illness was my mother's best diet.  She lost around eighty pounds when she stopped eating or drinking or getting up from the couch in her early fifties.  She was pleased with the effect and bragged to me over the phone in the days leading up to my wedding.  It was the thinnest she had been since before I was born.  She commandeered one of my dad's old wheelchairs because she had grown too weak to walk.  When I saw her next, she had aged twenty years.  Her formerly thick brown hair was sparse and grey, and the skin hung loose from her face and neck like wax dripping from a candle.  She reminded me of Emperor Palpatine.

My grandfather's lineage was much harder to trace because his parents were never married or lived together, and he never spoke about either of them.  I met one of his half-siblings once as a child, but it turns out there were at least six more.  More on Grandpa next time.

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