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.
What have you learned lately about your family history?