Monday, September 10, 2012

Keeping the Faith (or Not)

I think most families, especially large ones, have histories that are far more legend than factual.  Kernels of truth - sometimes as little as coincidence of surnames on the old family tree, or some ancestor having lived in the same locale as a celebrated figure - grow into luxurious vines of mythology: "We're related!"  "Great Grandfather knew him!"  Added to this tendency, I think, is the practice of parents or older relatives to sanitize or simplify complex situations into tales fit for young ears.  

It was an object of faith in my family - and still is among some of my cousins on the Warren side (my mother's family), especially the Protestant ones - that "Grandma was kicked out of her strict Catholic Irish family for marrying a Protestant."  This, too, was what I had believed - until in her later years, when I think she sensed she was sinking into the dementia which finally overcame her memory entirely, Mom told me what I assume is a more accurate version of events.  The Catholic/Protestant version of my mother's story paired nicely with a reverse story from my father's side whereby my Uncle Henry's wife was disowned by her strict Lutheran family when she married my Catholic Irish uncle (I wouldn't be surprised if the Irish aspect was worse than the Catholic one) and, when this Aunt Laura died giving birth to her second child, "they didn't even come to her funeral."  This second story seems, also to be less than accurate.  For instance, it turns out that that child and Laura are buried in her (Laura's) family plot.  Incidentally, the child of this birth was named Hedwig and died eleven days after her mother, no doubt having realized what a handicap growing up with the name 'Hedwig' would prove to be.  

The story of my grandmother being disowned was true, and it apparently was also true that her picture was cut from her family's photographs, since we learned the latter detail from cousins who discovered our kinship when a cousin of mine and her employer noticed that they had similar names in their ancestry.  "We always wondered what she had done," they told my mother, when they finally met.  However, as my mother later explained, my grandmother Elsie met my Protestant grandfather Ephraim after she had already left home.  The new story has some suspicious details, which I will point out but, I think, it is substantially accurate.  

Elsie had graduated high school and had taken a job at a local hospital, which she evidently enjoyed very much.  She still lived at home and, I gather, was either the eldest daughter of the family or else she was the oldest girl still living at home when her mother died.  Not too long after she began working, her mother passed away.  Since the family was a strict Catholic Irish family, there was, of course, a passel of kids younger than Elsie who were still in school and in need of a parent substitute devoted to the domestic chores involved in raising children around in the first decade of the 1900's.  My great grandfather, who by all accounts was a son of a bitch, was not about to take over these duties, nor to pay someone else to do it (I gather the family was comfortably off, though not wealthy).  The suspicious details (because they sound a tad melodramatic) of what followed are these:  it was just before Christmas, gifts were already wrapped and the names of the recipients were attached.  Great-grandfather removed Elsie's name from her gifts and readdressed them to her younger sisters.  He then led her to her late mother's closet and told her she was to quit her job and that henceforth these would be her clothes, and that she was to stay home taking over the duties of keeping house for the family and of raising her younger siblings.  

By all accounts, Elsie was a girl who, though an extremely strict parent later to her own daughters, loved a joke and loved a good time.  By this I don't mean to imply she was in any way loose, but just that she was not ready to give up her independence and probable future happiness to become a domestic slave.  She had vacationed the previous summer with a cousin in Geneva, NY and had had a marvelous time there.  Upon being faced with a dreary future at home, she packed her bag and as soon as she got the chance, left home and fled to the cousin, who took her in.  With a single exception, she never saw any of her family again; her siblings were forbidden to mention her name and her face was cut from all the family photos.  The one sister she did see again was Great-Aunt Daisy who, after she grew to adulthood, tracked Elsie down and re-established a relationship with her.  My mother remembers Aunt Daisy's visits as great treats; Daisy always came to visit laden with gifts for the children.  By leaving home and later marrying my grandfather, Elsie Warren left the middle class and became firmly embedded in the working class, in which every one of her daughters remained and among which which they chose their spouses.  

Not too long after she left home, Elsie met Grandpa Ephraim at some social affair - a village dance or festival of some sort - and in short order the two wed.  Grandfather was from an Appalachain mountain family that was spread along the New York Southern Tier and the Pennsylvania Northern Tier and, believe me, even today that is country.  At some point in his youth, Ephraim lived in Elmira, NY and family legend has it that he was "friends with Sam Clemens", who is, of course, better known as Mark Twain.  I doubt they were friends, (there would have been quite an age difference) but he may have known Clemens, in passing, as a fellow Elmiran.  Perhaps more likely, he just knew Clemens by reputation as his city's most famed inhabitant at the time.  Or possibly they weren't even there at exactly the same time, merely about the same time.  However, I do recall that I once mentioned "Mark Twain" and Grandpa (who didn't like me a whole lot anyway), frowned and thundered, "His name is Sam Clemens!"

I suspect the basic truth about Elsie is that she was a rebel from an early age.  She was probably a bit of a 'handful', and I wouldn't be at all surprised if her father disliked her a bit.   These legends of people being cast off for marrying outside the faith may be technically true as to the specific timing of the family decree that they be removed from the family, but my guess is that more often than not, if the religion is not one of those few cults that practice shunning, the marriage is the only last in a long line of small rebellions against the parental strictures.  The child who is thus cast off naturally feels that he or she is on the right side of the equation and is likely to pass on to the following generations a tale told from her point of view.  The parent depicted as overly strict probably would, in turn, describe the child as overly wild or naughty or willful.

I knew Grandpa Ephraim Warren (my only grandparent who had not died before I was born), and as I say, he didn't care for me too much.  As a man who had brought up eight daughters, the younger ones of whom he had to raise without Elsie's help, Grandpa wasn't terribly fond of boys in general.  Elsie died at 49 from complications from epilepsy, just months after Mom's high school graduation; Mom's two youngest sisters either did not recall their mother at all, or had only one or two vague memories.  My mother was raised very strictly, and she herself was not at all a rebel, although a couple of her sisters were somewhat more rebellious against the family norms than she.  Mom and her sisters grew up in a series of small country towns; Grandpa worked in the lumber trade, which required him to move occasionally.  In addition to those requisite moves, Elsie had some variety of wanderlust which caused her to change houses every couple of years even if Grandpa's work did not require a move.  Elsie never returned to the Catholic church, but she made sure her daughters attended whichever Protestant church was nearby.  

My mother so hated moving about that she made owning their own home from the start a condition of marriage to my father, and he and she chose and purchased a house in the city before they married.   Mom always wanted to be a "city girl" and she absolutely hated being a stand-out in any way.  She was the farthest thing from a rebel, yet fate conspired against her.   She became a Catholic, the only one of her sisters to do so, although no less than four of the others married Catholics.  She grew up thinking boys were somehow nasty, and those of her sisters who had children before she did dutifully had only daughters.  Mom broke the family tradition by having me, and then compounded her apostasy by having seven more boys.  And the whole City Girl thing went by the wayside when my Dad's brother Bernard developed a heart condition that rendered him unable to continue working on the family farm which he had inherited.  When I was three, Dad swapped the house in the city, which contained a rental flat upstairs, for the family farm and thus Mom became a farmer's wife as well as mother of eight boys (and of my only sister, Lucy), for neither of which activities she'd had any practical preparation.  "No one will ever know how often I was faking it," she confessed to me a few years ago.   It was strange to hear, since I always remember her as a serene presence, and as calmly expert in any matter that arose.  And you better believe, with nine children and a bipolar, alcoholic husband, plenty of unusual matters did arise.  

I have been thinking about the unreliability of so much of what I "know" lately, as I find out more and more things I was sure were true are actually highly doubtful.  There is so little we actually know about the past; we often find that even the events we witnessed are remembered differently by others who were also present.  Although I really try to be truthful when telling about my past or my family's history, the fact is that much of the nuance, at least, could be better labelled, "my story" than "my history".   It really is true that the older one gets, the less one knows.  Or at least there is so much less about which one can be certain.  It gives me quite a different perspective on history, which, besides being written by the winners, is even more likely written in service of mythologizing and bowdlerizing the past to fit the tellers' prejudices.    

Put another way, there is so little of what actually happened that matters to any individual life.  What one believes is true is the sole determinant of the impact of the past upon one's life.  

Yikes! we are even more rudderless than I thought!