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Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Delta Inside of Me

Even as a hunched and bug-eyed septuagenarian, my grandmother was a true matriarch. She could still summon a raspy smoker's boom of a voice. She was the only one that could rally my entire extended family for a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner. I believe this was because she actually loved every one of us. It was a shame there was no proper eulogy at her funeral; just awkward silences and the useless words of a minister that no one knew, and who certainly didn't know her.

My Nana carried an out-of-place nobility about her. No matter what pains life had thrown at her, and they were more than I or anyone else in the family had suffered, her chin was up and her eyes burned with curiosity and passion. She told every one of us to be proud... that ours was a great heritage... that we were descendants of statesmen like Henry Clay... that she was pals with important people like her former Navy Admiral crush... and that we, an important family, would establish ourselves as power brokers in this nation once again.

Her husband beat her and his own daughters. He died when I was young, but I do not recall anyone shedding any tears. She never remarried, living the last 20 years of her life a widow. Her own father almost certainly molested her. She alone tended to him through his 90's after he was unable to care for himself.

Her own daughters struggled... Marrying abusive men themselves. My mother ran away from home at 16. My aunt wrestled with addiction issues. Her brothers, my great uncles, were leathery men with profound darkness in them. The likable of the two was best known as a gambler and a drinker. The other was just known as a bastard. The only time I remember talking to him, he was telling antisemitic stories because he found out I worked for a Jewish agency.

Her grandchildren and her nieces and nephews were broken and angry like scattered shards of glass. My siblings left home when they could, used too much cocaine, and stopped being the people that I cared about. People were genuinely afraid of cousin Tommy. It was easier to just let him steal things to pay for his drug habit than to risk injury by confronting him. My sister's wedding was punctuated by cousin Lynnette's ex-boyfriend showing up high and crashing his car into another vehicle when he tried to speed off. And on my half-siblings' side of the family, the litany of affairs, betrayals and vendettas put soap operas to shame.

There were no brokers of power here. There was corruption, infidelity, addiction and failure. With the exception of my cousin Lynn, there were no college graduates. There was nothing that I could find to be proud of. My grandmother, my Nana, a beloved beacon to us all, was delusional.


But things conspired to give me a better chance. I knew my parents, and I knew they loved me. Shortly after I was born, they got me away from the wasteland that is southern California. They raised me with animals and farmland and guitar music and deep woods were I could build forts and pick huckleberries and walk with my dogs for entire summers. My father believed in accountability, never missing a day at work. He taught me the value of never losing your wallet. He wore a taped together pair of glasses for five years rather than replace them. And he would take apart anything that was broken and fix it, whether it was a washing machine or a VCR.

My mother was a creative genius. I still remember (I was about 14 years old) when I painfully realized she wasn't actually the best artist in the world. Until then, I had maintained an absolute faith that she was. Her drawings were magic... unfathomable in their creation. She taught me about quality, and about the staggering difference between Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. And when I was barely old enough to grasp their significance she introduced me to Harold and Maude, Odetta, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I did not understand these strengths at the time. Mostly, I just knew that I didn't relate well to my peers. I was competitive and insecure. I thought we were poor. I thought I had little to offer when I compared myself to the other AP kids who were building circuit boards or zeroing in on a basketball scholarship. I thought there was something deeply wrong with me... and that it was probably in my blood. My heritage was a curse that I would never escape.

And yet, my life feels a blessing. My career has blossomed, my relationships feel healthy and supportive, and I have learned to be unafraid when change is in the air. This is a fate that I could not have imagined for myself. I am grateful for all the gifts of my parents, the education I received and the travels that have shaped me. I also wonder if my grandmother was right all along. I should remember the silent contribution of those statesmen and power brokers. Perhaps their ghosts live inside me: the Russian nesting dolls of DNA.


At 3/07/2012 07:15:00 PM, Blogger Walaka said...

I haven't commented yet because I think I got these out of order. Magic Ring Parts 1 and 2 and this piece make a wonderful triptych. I and glad you shared this wonderful story - told so well and so honestly - with the world. Keep it up.


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