What are those old cliches we all use? “You’re so much like your mother.” “You’re so much like your dad.” “You remind me of my Aunt Catherine.” “You have your grandmother’s eyes and your grandfather’s nose.”
I am a composite. I might look like my mom or my dad, but the resemblance ends there. I never really knew them. I don’t know much of their personalities or behaviors. Hardly spent any time with them, tragically. But, no regrets…
Kicking and screaming I came into the world just shortly after midnight, my mother in the throes of a ‘nervous breakdown’ and a father who had gone missing and a waiting room packed with aunts & uncles trying to help name me. My mother won out on that one and I’m glad she did.
The umbilical cord was cut, I was cleaned off and whisked out of the room to my loving maternal grandparents and thence to their farmhouse in the countryside to be cuddled and loved along with the baby sheep that were sometimes rejected by their mother ewes. I was told I made my first trip to church when I was 3 days old. I tried that with my son and after a spout of baby formula vomited 3 feet high and over the next 4 pews, I whisked him right out of there and kept him home a few more weeks. My mother never recovered from her postpartum depression and was institutionalized and my father never returned. Within two years, my older and younger siblings joined me at the farm. A fourth sibling was then born and raised by my Dad’s aunt & uncle.
But what DNA is there in a broken family that is mended with familial glue? Emotional DNA or emotional baggage?
One great great paternal grandfather fought in the Civil War and had his finger run over by a train. Later he became a carpenter and then co-owned a barber shop – in a time when things went on in the backrooms of the barber shop that people didn’t talk about. The pool hall was next door. A shade dishonest, perhaps, but he tried.
His son (my great grandfather) had what must have been a ‘shot gun’ marriage and quickly ran off with another woman to Chicago. His brother was a boxer, a prize ring fighter who once fought John R. Sullivan and fought in dusty fields where quick fly-by-your pants fights were set up before the authorities could step in. A little more than a shade dishonest men.
His son, my Dad’s father, raised by a single mom in her mother’s household (her husband had died – he had lost an arm & a leg in a big train wreck in Illinois), was raised with more honorable intentions and taught right from wrong and what have you. He saw what it was like for a woman to struggle raising children alone in a time when it was rarely seen (ca 1900). He inherited that barber shop, along with his mom’s brothers and eventually had a barber shop in downtown Indianapolis. Unfortunately he died just before I was born, a victim of peritonitis due to an automobile accident. An honest man, a hard working man, a good man.
My maternal great great grandfather – also fought in the Civil War, blind at night, so he had to be led by hand on night missions. He would sneak home in the dark to his East Tennessee home to see his wife and babies to tell them he loved them. It was a time when each side would kidnap the young soldiers to serve on their side so it was incredibly dangerous for him to try to visit. An honest, dedicated and loving man.
My maternal great grandfather – dirt poor East Tennessee man, deeply religious, loved his wife and his 8 children with all his heart. Honest, loving, dedicated, God fearing, God loving.
My maternal grandfather – wanderer, adventurer who traipsed to Canada to find a wife and brought her home to Indiana. Raised 12 children on a big farm – deeply loyal, loving, God fearing, God loving and dedicated to all things honest and true and as I was once told, didn’t know a stranger. Taught us to tell the truth, work hard and love our God. Instilled in us a deep faith. And kept a home where we felt safe, loved, valued. My memory of him sitting in bed holding my dying grandmother in the evenings will forever be imprinted on me as he displayed such passionate love for her.
Odds were that my siblings and I in any other situation might not have come through it without deep scars had it not been for the emotional DNA that was passed down to us from our forbears and the example DNA our grandparents provided us with.