In writing about my family tree, I have referred to my paternal grandfather several times, but I have hesitated to write about my mother’s father, Grandpa Bob. Every time I log into my DNA matching accounts, I see his legacy. On 23andMe, the great majority of my close matches are connected to me through him. It so happens that both of his siblings have done genetic genealogy tests. His family tree is so well represented in my matches that I have entertained the notion that the desire to know one’s genetic heritage may be associated with a hitherto nameless gene that happens to run through several of his family lines.
There is no reliably tactful way of raising the subject of a close ancestor with a checkered past. Feelings can still be so raw that the only simple way to refer to such an ancestor is through pictures, such as this one:
Grandpa was afflicted with both alcoholism and depression. Even though I honestly cannot recall a time he hurt me intentionally, I turned away from him when I was 10 years old, when he bookended several years of sobriety with more drinking. One day I came from school and his voice sounded a half octave higher, like Joe Pesci halfway through a bottle of Ripple. Hearing him say my name in that funhouse voice bricked in my heart, and I couldn’t even look at him.
He pleaded with me, “Why won’t you look at me, Shelly?”
At that age, I did not have the words to explain to him that I couldn’t deal with him because I knew that his drinking had an been an earthquake in my mother’s youth. I loved him, but he had hurt my mother. That was all that mattered. I loved my mother more.
I have written before that there is no point in judging my ancestors because if they had lived their lives differently, I might not exist. But this neutrality is tough when that person’s behavior wounded some of the people I love most.
About a year and a half ago, I lost a friend to suicide, and she gave me the unintentional gift of forgiving Grandpa Bob. Her life had fallen apart by degrees, and she had descended to the outskirts of the local alcoholic culture. That life quickly wore on her; she ended her life three months later.
Through her, I understood that Grandpa’s triumph was his survival. To have been been so afflicted and resisted suicide for seven decades was a victory in itself. In researching his family tree, I discovered that two of his first cousins had ended their lives, one of whom did so in such a dramatic fashion that his end was the lead story in the local newspaper the day after his death. This headline-making cousin was also his best friend.
Depression and alcohol in tandem are a juggernaut. Each alone can drive a person to do or say the very things that push away the people who love you the most. Together this alienation is achieved with greater efficiency, like a carpet bomb that eventually wipes out everyone around you except for toxic strangers.
Grandpa has been gone for fifteen years. When I see the names of his family lines in so many of my genetic matches, I now think of the good times we had with him, which have grown precious in my memory. I remember when he taught me how to cook pancakes and slowly heat maple syrup in a sauce pan at the same time so the syrup would be perfect when all the pancakes were ready.
He told me a few times that he was a Dutchman. I asked him how he knew, and he told me, “Listen to your baby brother. He already knows how to speak Dutch.”
When I was building the outline of my family tree, I discovered that he really did have some Dutch ancestors and that he’d descended from some of the early Dutch settlers of New York:
How such information is lost and found as family histories are passed down through generations is a mystery to me.
The week before I stopped talking to Grandpa, he surprised me by writing “E.T. phone home” on the chalkboard in my room. He was the kind of Grandpa who excelled at making quarters appear behind ears, so he didn’t reveal himself as the author for a few days. When I found out he was the one who wrote it, I sprayed the chalk board with hairspray so it would stay longer. Even after we stopped talking, I let his message fade in its own time.