Unnamed faces in old (and not-so-old) family pictures
A friend expressed a particular family dysfunction really well: inherited baggage. This is the phenomenon where, because of some issue one, two, or more generations back, there are relatives you know about, and maybe even hear about frequently, but you never really get to know them. Frequently you also are never told why is it that Great-uncle Glenn will never visit. Nor why, though we very frequently visited Great-grandma who literally lives next door to Great-uncle Glenn, yet we almost never stopped in at Great-uncle Glenn’s house.
That isn’t a made-up example.
Whenever we went to visit Great-grandma on her farm, we would also drive a couple miles down the road to the farm owned by Great-uncle Lawrence and see all of his family. To get to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house, we had to drive right past Great-uncle Glenn’s farm. While we were visiting, often Great-uncle Glenn’s wife, Dorothy, would come to either Great-grandma’s house or to Great-uncle Lawrence’s house to see us. But Great-uncle Glenn wouldn’t.
The picture above was a similar visit… Great-uncle Glen’s oldest son, who was similar in age to my Dad, lived several states away and didn’t visit often. And the time he and his wife(?) did visit, while Great-aunt Dorothy and his sisters and Great-grandma all made the trek over the mountain to Grandpa’s house, and we drove from the town we were living in (an hour away), once again Great-uncle Glenn didn’t come along.
As I recall, usually my great-aunt would make some comment about why her husband was tied up with work or business on the farm. But my other great-uncle just down the road also had a working farm, yet could make time to visit, sit down to dinner with everyone, and so on. It was odd, but when all of the adults tell you the same explanation, and then distract you with an amusing family anecdote, or send you to fetch some fresh apricots from the orchard, and so on, you just accept it. I didn’t realize how odd it was until some years later, when I was trying to help Mom identify some distant relatives from Dad’s side of the family in a picture like the one above. I realized while we were looking at the pictures that I had no idea what Great-uncle Glenn looked like.
A few years later I got a glimpse of another aspect of this. I was on the phone with my paternal grandfather (in the photo above, he’s the seated man on the far left, petting the dog; I’m the kid third over from the left). I hadn’t seen him in person in several years, and we were just having a catching-up conversation. He made a comment about my cousin Curt, but referred to him as “our oldest grandson.” And he immediately stopped himself, muttered something, and said, “I mean, I meant Linda’s oldest boy.” Because I was his oldest grandson. Curt was three years younger than me and we grew up together. I knew who he was.
In the moment, I was worried that the slip had been because he forgot who he was talking to, and maybe this was a sign of some form of senile dementia. When I mentioned this worry to another relative, they said, “Oh, I guess no one told you. Since you came out as gay, Grandma get angry if anyone mentions you. We have to pretend you don’t even exist.”
Many years later, a few months after my paternal grandmother died, Mom got a call from someone she hadn’t heard from in almost 40 years: Great-aunt Carol, who was at that time the widow of Grandpa’s youngest brother. She had gotten Mom’s phone number from one of my aunts after the aunt had mentioned that Mom had sent flowers to Grandma’s funeral. She explained that once Mom and Dad divorced, everyone in the family was forbidden from mentioning Mom or my oldest sister by name. They were only allowed to ask after me, and then Grandma would talk about what a good son I was, knowing that a boy’s job is to take care of his mother, even when she doesn’t deserve it.
That was the official line for about 15 years: Grandma had a beloved grandson who had been taken away by a mother who didn’t deserve him. Never mind that I had had to convince the divorce judge not to place me in the custody of my abusive father. It was Mom’s fault.
Then, Great-aunt Carol said, “That was until about, oh, sometime in the early 90s, it was. I asked if she had heard from Gene lately, and got the icy ‘we don’t talk about him!’ And that was that. I never knew why.” So Mom had had to explain that that was about the time I came out of the closet. “I guess he stopped being the favorite grandson, then.”
Great-aunt Carol then explained that this sort of thing had happened a lot over the 50-some years she had been my Grandma’s in-law. Relatives would fall out of favor, and no one was supposed to bring them up. “Suddenly I’m not allowed to ask about a particular niece any more, for instance.” And it wasn’t just Grandma who did that sort of thing, she said. Some of the others on that side of the family did it, too.
People used to think I was joking when I said I had an Evil Grandmother. Honestly, this habit of cutting people out if she could was hardly the worst thing she used to do. It’s one thing to make a decision not to have any unnecessary contact with any person–relative or not–that you don’t get along with1. It’s quite another to insist everyone around you do the same thing.
I don’t know what was going on with Great-uncle Glenn. Had he and Grandma been feuding for years? Was he shunning one of the other relatives, like my Dad or my Mom? I doubt anyone will ever know, now.
But because of that rift, there are a lot of my relatives–including four of the people in that picture up there–who are related to me and that I might have even met, once, but I don’t know their names. I see their faces in these pictures, and wonder who they are? What happened to them?
I’m not the only one. When Great-aunt Carol called Mom, it was because of her own sense of loss. There were people she had known and cared about who were driven out of the family. In the days before Facebook, email, and internet directories, often the only way to keep track of where relatives lived and what was happening in their lives was through frequent contact with other relatives. So even if you want to secretly stay in contact, you’re not able. As Great-aunt Carol asked Mom, “I can’t imagine what you must have thought of me, never hearing from me all those years? What do any of them think of us? Do they all assume that we agreed with the reasons they were being shunned? I guess they must.”
All because of someone else’s baggage…
1. Especially if they are abusive. I’m sure if certain family members found this blog post they would point out how I have distanced myself from some of the family. The difference: I’ve never told anyone else they can’t stay in contact with my abusive or homophobic relatives if they choose.