Haute Dish The Arts & Literature Magazine of Metropolitan State University red flower
Summer 2005

 

 

 


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a true family story
A tip of the hat to Tim O'Brien
Laurel Walsh

In order to tell a true family story you must disengage yourself from all loyalty to the people involved. In order to do this, you must first align yourself with a greater good. Loyalty to humans is disruptive to this new marriage, this new union, this second bond. If it is true, the story has every right to exist in word, in memory, in history.

 

This is true.

My grandparents were alcoholics. Grandpa liked whiskey. Grandma liked gin. Grandpa said gin made you mean, Grandma insisted whiskey did.

I lived with them. Every morning, instead of milk, they poured straight alcohol over their bran flakes. Each had a hiding place for their booze and they would covertly spill some into the bowl, color it with skim milk and reeking of gin or whiskey, sit down smiling. I wasn’t fooled.

My grandma had a plastic purple chaise lounge that she dragged from the garage bump, scrape, bump onto the white cement of the front yard (Grandpa got sick of mowing, had the yard paved). If the skies opened and poured down on her, she calmly retrieved a bright yellow beach umbrella and curled her feet under. Every single summer morning she had me fetch her a TV table, an ashtray and a glass of ice water (not too much water). I could clearly see the outline of the silver flask against her ribcage; sometimes the small metal cap peeked out of her dressing gown and winked in the sunlight. As always, she had a book. She read constantly. I didn’t.

There wasn’t time for literature. By the time I got Grandpa, growling and snarling, down for his nap, Grandma would be in the front yard, getting naked. I said the same thing to her everyday, “You do it again, and I’m going to charge admission.”

Grandma would laugh and laugh and throw her thin arms around my neck and try to make me dance with her, gin sloshing dangerously in her hand, spilling on her wrist, down my fingers. I’d smell it, the oily pinch of pine in my nostrils as I gathered my Grandma up and put her to bed.

 

A true family story is never moral. It can’t be because life isn’t arranged to teach us any specific thing but instead, we are meant to gather knowledge, learn, and evolve. My grandpa drank. He drank the first half of his life away. He stopped drinking after his daughter, a nun, died. He stopped drinking after he was pulled over for a DWI.

 

This is true.

I would fight battles to defend the honor of my grandparents. I loved them fiercely, protectively, forever and ever, amen. But I will write the truth about them.

 

The real truth is different from the true truth.

The truth is that neither of my grandparents ever tasted even a sip of alcohol in their entire long lives. They both swore they detested it. "Lemonade is much nicer than beer,” Grandma always said when a guest requested her least favorite liquid. My grandparents believed that prohibition was the best thing that ever happened to America and that it was a damn shame it ended.

Across from my grandparent’s lot, and all the way to the end of the block, was a string of bustling taverns, their doors opening like a magician’s trick with music and a puff of smoke. My grandmother, who detested the sun, lived behind pulled shades her entire life. She would peek out her window and watch wobbling couples stagger past at closing time. On more than one occasion, someone vomited on their path.

" The Lord hates taverns. That is why he made them so dark and smoky. It’s a taste of what hell will be like for those poor heathens.” I tried to figure out if the taverns were like hell, nearly exactly, what would make all those ladies and gentleman pull up in their cars at all hours, shouting on the way in and singing on their way out? It made me suspicious about heaven because church wasn’t nearly as cheerful.

 

Now, I am going to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I wanted my grandparents to be like the ones in books: gray-haired, knitting, nonsmoking, old and content. At age 15, having not really met my grandparents besides occasional visits, my entire family moved in with them. I did not imagine that they would be restless, inquisitive, surprising and busy.

I thought I knew what to expect because I had read books where the characters had grandparents. Later it turned out that I had the same exact problem with my own parents. I had always thought of my family as defined by me. These are my grandparents, not two people who, a long time ago, had a sweaty scrumptious moment that became a baby who happened to survive to adulthood and repeat the process.

 

The truth shall set you free.

My grandmother was a nurse. My grandfather sold insurance. She worked the three until eleven shift at St. Joseph’s. He worked nine to five. They had seven children. Their third daughter died in a Duluth convent when she was twenty-one. Her name was Mary Alice. She died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. When Mary Alice had complained of chest pains, the nuns told her it was homesickness.

 

All true stories are contradictory.

Days before Mary Alice died, she told my aunt, “The first thing that I’m going to do when I get to heaven is to ask God to make Dad stop drinking.”

A few months after his daughter died, my grandpa was arrested and thrown into the county jail for operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He made it to two appointments before nine-thirty when he was pulled over. It was 9:30 in the morning.

My grandma’s hospital connections got him transferred to a clinic in Duluth where he then entered into a twelve-step program and quit drinking.

 

All stories evolve in telling. They graduate up a ladder of human understanding. My grandfather quit drinking when he was fifty years old. A few years ago, before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis, before the nursing home, he said to me, “I quit drinking, and what do I have to show for it?”

 

This happened.

In March of 1956, my grandparent’s sent my mother off to school with a handful of invitations. My grandma wrote the cards out the night before, drawing small maps on each card with my mother’s house marked with an X. But grandma’s careful cursive was never seen by any of my mother's classmates. Mother could not be sure that my grandpa wouldn’t be loaded, lying on the couch with his fly open.

 

This is a fact.

I completed college because my mother didn’t. This is all her fault.

 

You can tell a true family story by the way it never seems to end. It is not repetition necessarily, nor rebirth. The continuation is inside a chin, a gesture, the fingers that an infant chooses to suck on, the ‘clan plan’, unpromoted and internalized. I want to unlearn several lessons.

 

Maybe that is not completely true, but this is.

My mother is a born-again Christian.

 

Back to the truth.

In 1972, we lived in Germany and my grandparents came to visit. At bedtime, eight o’clock sharp, the fights started. I wanted one more hug from Dad, one more good night prayer with Mom. Grandpa would be left to put me down. They stayed for six weeks and Grandpa went back to Minnesota reporting that his granddaughter was naughty, but secretly I had won his heart.

If you knew me, you would know this is true.

Grandpa could not help being funny. In moments he could write you a poem about whatever you happened to be discussing. When I cleaned hotel rooms in London (I was nineteen), Grandpa sent me a poem titled, The Chambermaid’s Chamber pot.

While visiting in 1972, my mother took Grandma and Grandpa to Israel, to the Holy Land. “This is where Christ collapsed the first time,” Grandpa would say. Two hours later some other tour guide would show you where Jesus really collapsed. Grandpa became a back pew Catholic, a reluctant Christian who stopped attending mass forever when Grandma died.

 

How do you generalize?

How can I ascertain what all of this means to me? It is all here with the bleak and the beautiful truth that pollutes and sanctifies my mind. I want to write it down and claim it by throwing it all on to a new surface that is not my soul. I carry a dangerous need to birth shadows into light. The dust and rust underneath captivates me. I’m straining to see, staining myself and others because I want to embrace all the colors of this muddy rainbow, all the mistakes, not even counting the ones I’m making sitting here in my office typing to the far away sound of an airplane struggling through the darkening sky.

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