My family tree produces more than its share of nuts, but there are also some wonderful characters and stories there. I use them sometimes; but really, there are just too many. I could write for a whole long lifetime and never get around to using half the available material.
My paternal grandmother’s life alone would make a shelf of novels. Born in Pomerania, she came to the US—alone—at fifteen to join an older sister and brother-in-law in Wisconsin. They had a business there (what kind, I don’t know) and according to my grandmother, worked her like a slave.
Her brother-in-law took advantage of her in other ways, too. When she was seventeen, my grandmother had a child by him. Her sister was either indifferent to the state of affairs, or possibly even relieved to have someone to share the burden of her husband’s demands. The sister adopted the child as her own, and the situation continued as before.
When my grandmother was pregnant by her brother-in-law for the second time, she ran away to Chicago and lost herself among the large numbers of Polish immigrants whose neighborhood was centered on the Polish Catholic Basilica of St. Hyacinth. A local priest introduced her to Joseph, a more recent immigrant from the same small village my grandmother had come from. Joe was lonely, and looking for a wife. The couple were wed just as soon as the banns had been posted.
It wasn’t until after they were married that my grandmother revealed that she was already carrying another man’s child. To her surprise, her new husband was undismayed. Babies were always a blessing, he said.
A story with a happy ending—unless I chose to continue it.
The marriage was an unhappy one. The hastily-wed couple were ill-suited to one another. My grandfather frequently said that when “the old woman” was dead, he would dance on her grave; and when the time came, he would have, too—except that by then he was too old and too feeble to dance. The couple had twelve children, but buried six of them; interestingly, the daughter who was technically not his own was always my grandfather’s favorite. My father and his siblings grew up not knowing that their mother had ever lived in Wisconsin, far less that they had a half-sibling there—until the daughter of that sibling (my grandmother’s first grandchild) wrote one day, apparently in a fit of adolescent pique at her mother, to inform them.
Though Grandma had long since quarreled with, and left, the Catholic Church, the shame of what she had been told there was her “sin” in “submitting” (at fifteen!) to abuse by an older man in an unfamiliar country was as sharp as ever, and the family, suddenly confronted by this new information, was thrown into chaos.
In the midst of it, my grandmother had a stroke. Her devout older children (her younger children—my father, for one—had followed their mother out of the church), kept the priest who came to administer Extreme Unction waiting in a hospital corridor until they were certain their mother was unconscious.
Three years later, my grandfather died. He was buried—not immediately adjacent to his wife of fifty years, but with the tiny graves of two Joseph, Jr.’s intervening.
“To keep them from fighting,” my father told me.