Red

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Last week I had lunch with my cousin Eric.  We have not seen each other for 30 years.

Eric’s father is the oldest, and my mother is the youngest girl.  Of 9.  I have 22 cousins; 22, and yet I know so few of them.

Eric’s father escaped our clan in Southeast Missouri and got as far away as he could, all the way to the coastal edge of California, and when I was little I had fantasies about running away and becoming part of their family.  They only came ‘home’ for a few visits, but I distinctly remember how happy they seemed, how ‘light’, how loving; I remember being 11 yrs old and sitting on the front stoop at Grandpa Red’s and Grandma Ann’s and watching them drive away, desperately wishing they would take me, oh please please please take me, with them.

Our lunch was hours long and, as you might imagine, ‘interesting.’  We both shared family stories and tried to puzzle together where we came from.  The most shocking thing I learned (and there were several) was that our Grandpa Red tried to circumcise himself.  He was drunk.  Of course he was.  But he was in his 20’s and wanted to fit in and thought he could do it and the next thing he knew he almost had the job done.

Red almost bled to death.

I keep trying to picture it.  Where was he?  Outside?  In a bathroom, a garage, a front lawn, an alley, a bar?  What kind of knife, was anyone else there, how did it start, when did he know, or did someone else know, he needed a doctor?  What in the world prompted this?

There is a Dorothy Allison quote from her 1995 interview with Charlie Rose:  It’s the macho standard, and it’s as Southern as it is … you know, they talk about Spanish men and black men, [but] working class men have this ethic of ‘a man don’t talk,’ ‘a man is John Wayne.’  John Wayne is the model for most of my uncles trying to swagger through their lives showing no pain. It meant they couldn’t ask for help even when they knew they needed help. They didn’t dare.”

When I’m working on my book, I’m so focused on the women that I sometimes forget the men. And their pain.

I recently wrote a post about how Grandpa Red abused my grandmother and her children, including my mother, and yet I need to know, as the writer, as the documentarian, 2 generations later, who was Red Brockmire?  Who in the hell was he?  Because by the time I came along he was skinny and sick with emphysema and was so frail and out of breath he could barely go up and down the stairs or garden or cook or even have chat, without a rest.  Many rests.  The Red I knew was defeated.  The Red I knew was exhausted, harmless.  The Red I knew had surrendered.  But that wasn’t who Red was.

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What have you learned lately about your family history?

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18 thoughts on “Red

  1. amyg

    Holy shit. I can’t even imagine. Self circumcision?? Dear lord.

    I was just with all of my cousins tonight. And their kiddos. There was a full dinner. Pumpkin carving for ages 6 to 11 (w/ the help of moms and aunts and grandmas). At one point, I found my 96 year old grandma sitting in the living room reading a book of poetry – by Leonard Cohen. There was a giant bonfire by the lake at the end.

    I just wrote the most shocking thing I learned recently, and then deleted it. Two and a half years later and still too soon.

    1. Teri Post author

      I just told my husband I have a sick pang every time I write and then send these things publicly, but it’s also what keeps me cracked open enough to continue working/writing.

      I assume this is your dad’s side of the family? I love that you have them — your stories about them are what I always imagine a “family” to be.

  2. Patty

    You should come for a visit to Colorado and sit with my dad. The stories he could tell you about Red. I’m glad you got to visit with Eric. He’s quite the story teller too!

    1. Teri Post author

      Patty, if you haven’t done it yet, you should sit your dad down with a tape recorder and get him to tell his stories. I did this with Aunt Mary a few years ago and the recordings are just priceless. Wish I’d thought to do it with Grandma Ann and my mother.

  3. christianliving2014

    This is sad. I found out when my mom told my grandma she was pregnant with me, my grandma told her to get an abortion. My real father bailed when he found out. There’s a lot of secrets in my family. I’m sorry your family had to go through this. This is a great write!

  4. SmallHouseBigGarden

    What has shocked me most is how little my parents knew about THEIR parents who were all immigrants from either Italy or Ireland. They claim their parents NEVER shared many details of their lives in the old countries or even of relatives left behind there. I was always so incredulous about this: “And you never ASKED??” Again they claim they didn’t because “back then kids didn’t ask those things.”
    Part of me thinks this is ridiculous but the other part wonders if maybe life was simpler/easier when roles between children and adults were so clearly defined.
    Times have changed so dramatically in two short generations. My kids probably know more about me (the good AND the bad) than they want to but as they get much older I think they will appreciate not having the information gaps of most people over age 45 today!

  5. Averil Dean

    A few years ago, my mother told me about a long affair she’d had, one that lasted through my teens. As she confessed—in a dark room, lying on a sofa for emotional distance like you would in a shrink’s office—I instantly remembered a phone call I took from him once: Me, all manners, “May I tell her who’s calling?” and his answer. “Mr. Sullivan.” I must have been about thirteen, an age where you can sense a secret from the lack of information.

    It was a five-second exchange at most, but I filed it away the way children do when they’ve gotten hold of something too big to handle. Strange to find the memory right where I’d left it, as if I’d just handed over the phone.

    1. Teri Post author

      How vivid those small details still are, all these years later. Kids are so much more aware, and knowing, than the grownups in the family give them credit for. Oh man, the things I knew as a 10 yr old and never told anyone I was “on to” them.

  6. donnaeve

    Whoa. What a surprising thing to discover.

    My mother has always been quite vocal about sharing family “stuff.” I’ve known since I was a kid my father underwent electroshock therapy, for a “nervous breakdown.” That the brown bag my grandfather coveted contained moonshine. That my grandmother left my grandfather once because he cheated on her. That the timing of my brother’s birth was questioned by my father’s entire family. He was born nine months, and three weeks after they were married.

    But…, as the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

    1. Teri Post author

      feel like most of us would be so much healthier if we did know. Carrying all of these many secrets and shames is exhausting.

      1. donnaeve

        Agreed.

        As a side note, I’ve been writing comments lately and assume everyone knows what I mean. So, just b/c I’m anal, I have to further expound on the “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and FTFT = finish the fucking thought – haha.

        And what I should have ended with was…so, there could STILL be some big lurking surprise out there I haven’t heard about.

        There. I feel better.

      2. Teri Post author

        Ha!! And I’m speaking to my family, not yours. Yours seems to be secret sharers, and open, how great is that?

      3. donnaeve

        Well. It’s okay until the sharing is.. “your aunt says your uncle was always really good in the sack. That’s why they had so many kids.”

        Could’a gone the rest of my life…

  7. Suzy Vitello

    Wow, self-circumcision. That breaks my heart right open. Man, oh man.

    I learned recently that my dad was named for an uncle who had died in childhood, and that he had just found that out from a cousin. He grew up not having had any idea that his father had a dead brother, and that brother became a namesake legacy in the form of an only child. It gives me a bit more insight into my father: the golden boy, the beloved.

    1. Teri Post author

      A man in a lot of pain and nowhere to go with it.

      I can’t even imagine this for your father, Suzy. What a thing to find out, and how extraordinary that the secret was kept for so long. What would we be, I wonder, without all of our secrets?

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