a true family story
A tip of the hat to Tim O'Brien
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
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.
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
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
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?”
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
Maybe that is not completely true, but
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
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
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
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