Tag Archives: family archives

Passing it On

16 Mar

My daughter, Leah recently took it upon herself to organize the family archives (archives, you say? Oh, yes—we have archives!) After sorting through dozens of boxes of old photos and letters, some that are over 100 years old, I came across an old photo of my grandmother, Martha (my mother’s mother) with her mother, Leila, (my great-grandmother) and her grandmother Mrs. H.D. Weed, (my great-great grandmother.) The photo was probably taken in the early 1900’s in Jamestown, Ohio. Tucked inside the photo was a tiny letter, written by my grandmother to her uncle Harry when she was around ten years old.

Dear Harry,                                        Jamestown, Ohio, Jan. 1, 1913

I am writing you to tell you how much I liked your present. I think that this letter will get to you, before Hellen will get home. I got four books, three boxes of kf, a sewing box; and lots and lots of things too. This is New Years day, I will have to close.

Yours Sincerely,

Martha Smith

P.S. Aunty Kate was here today with Uncle Ed and Bernerd. Thank you              for your present.

Give Hellen my love. M.S.

 

Kisses xxxxxxxxxxxxxx                             Hugs oooooooooooooo

M.S.

 

 

On the back of the envelope, her mother, Leila writes: I don’t know what is in this as she did this all herself. We are having winter for sure her this morning. Leila

Martha Smith Green. My grandmother. Reading her tiny letter in her delicate cursive lettering, I realize that she was once a precious little girl who was deeply loved by her family. I only knew her as a frail old woman in a mink coat, doused in Chanel No. 5, wearing too much red lipstick, her stooped body draped in colorful silk scarves and gaudy jewelry. She always had a cigarette in one perfectly manicured hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. She lavished me with presents from her world travels, while completely ignoring my two brothers. At the time, I thought she just didn’t like boys. Only later in life did I discover why she didn’t interact with my brothers. I also learned that she carried so much pain and trauma in her heart, that for decades, she needed to self-medicate with alcohol. She died of cirrhosis of the liver when I was ten years old.

Over the years, my mother and I have had many conversations about my grandmother, Martha. That she had a brother who died in childhood. How she had a career as a concert pianist, but gave it up when she married. How three of her babies died (two late term miscarriages and one full term birth) before my mother was born. That she and my grandfather refused to do anything to prepare for my mother’s birth—no crib, no diapers or layette—because they believed that my mother was most likely going to die, as well.

Five years after my mother’s birth, Martha had another child—a boy—named Johnnie. He was the light of her life. When he was five, he ran out into the street between two parked cars, and was hit by a speeding car. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. My mother, who had just argued with Johnnie and told him to drop dead saw it happen. In her ten-year-old mind, it was her fault.

Neighbors removed Johnnie’s clothes and toys from the house the very next day and my grandparents kept my mother home from the funeral. One day he was there, the next, he was erased. No one talked about Johnnie’s death. One afternoon, my mother walked into her parents’ bedroom and witnessed her dad methodically banging his head against the wall—over and over and over. When my mother was a senior in college, her dad died of a heart attack. She thinks it took him ten years to die of his broken heart. My grandmother took longer, but still died at a very young sixty seven.

Generational trauma. The sadness, the loss, and the secrets become part of who we are. For years, I never knew my mother even had a brother. I always thought she was an only child. Throughout my own childhood, my brothers and I were never allowed to speak negatively about anything. Everything had to be wonderful all the time, even when my dad’s own childhood trauma (he died before I ever had the understanding or maturity to ask him about it) turned him into an alcoholic and wreaked havoc in our own lives. My parents couldn’t handle any kind of conflict, grief or sadness, so they wouldn’t allow us to, either. We had to pretend everything was okay—when it wasn’t.

My own childhood trauma manifested in anxiety and depression that I’ve fought for years to overcome. But what I’m now learning in therapy is that my anxiety may have actually been a good thing—it prevented me from turning to alcohol and drugs to dull my pain. Because my anxiety is based on a fear of losing control, I never liked how alcohol made me feel, so I avoided it. My husband and I made the mutual decision not to drink, so our children never had to deal with any family alcoholism.

Of course, we gave our children trauma—all parents do in some form or another. But I at least broke one cycle that won’t haunt them for the rest of their lives. And I’ve broken the cycle of keeping secrets, as well. I’m an open book (sometimes without a filter) and will freely admit to my foibles, vulnerabilities and shame. I will talk until you tell me to shut up.

I’m also realizing that life is not meant to be happy every single minute of every single day. Society has fed us this big lie that we MUST be content all the time or we’ve failed. It’s just not true. If anything has taught us that life is not always easy, it’s these past few years. And it looks like it’s not getting any better real soon. Yes, there will always be great pain in life; but there can also be great joy. Often, it’s somewhere in the middle.

And good or bad, this too, shall pass.