Saturday, October 08, 2005

"Happy Birthday, dear Dad, Happy Birthday to you!"

It's my father's birthday today. It seems an appropriate time to present the next installment of my family history...the story of his parents, which by necessity includes his birth.

When last we left my paternal relatives, there had been a very tragic suicide...but we need to back up a bit because my grandparents met before that...

They grew up close to one another, my grandfather was born in Jacksonville, Iowa and my grandmother in Harlan, Iowa. Grandfather was an only child and grandmother was the oldest of 5. My grandfather, I later learned had been smitten with another young woman from Harlan, named Leona. He'd even asked for her hand in marriage, but Leona was too young, according to her father. He then began courting my grandmother and they were married.

Their marriage was a rocky one from the start. My grandmother was never an easy woman to live with...these days she would have been diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder (aka Manic Depression), but back then she was considered tempermental. I think she had also had her sights set from the beginning on getting out of Iowa, and my grandfather...well, even if he didn't love farming, he certainly enjoyed small town life.

He was a musician and could play the fiddle, the mandolin, the accordian and the piano. He loved the barn dances they used to have and being able to play with other people while his friends and neighbors danced the night away. Later, when I was just young, he got out his accordian and played while my mother taught me to polka...but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Grandmother had, very soon after their marriage, asked grandfather for a divorce, then discovered that she was pregnant...with my father. He is pretty clear that she never forgave him for being the reason she couldn't leave my grandfather (things like that just weren't done then). They eventually had 2 daughters, as well.

Shortly after my youngest aunt was born, my grandfather gave in to his wife's demands and they sold the farm and moved to central Minnesota and bought a motor inn. This proved to be serendipity for me, as my mother lived in the same central Minnesota town.

When people argue that some people shouldn't be allowed to be parents, they certainly had my grandmother in mind. I think it would have helped if she could have gotten some treatment, but that really wasn't done then, either. It's painful to hear my father describe the abuse, both physical and emotional, that she heaped upon them. It's even more painful that my grandfather did nothing to protect his children.

After all their children were adults, my grandparents moved to Florida. My grandfather was never happy part due to my grandmother's increasing erratic behavior, spurred on by a new complication - an addiction to valium.

I have few memories of my grandmother. I remember that she was kind to me. That she held me when I was afraid of the goat at the zoo. That she made me a special bed to sleep in and that she made me grapefruit with sugar for breakfast.

I also remember the argument over money she had with my father, and her locking herself in the bathroom and my mother telling me she was sick. Then I remember waking up in my mother's arms one night as we fled my grandparents' house because my parents were afraid that she might hurt me or Sister.

Two weeks after that visit, my mother told me that my grandmother was dead. I pretended to cry because I knew that being dead was something sad, but I was only 4 and I didn't understand. I learned later how when she failed to OD on valium she slit her wrists, and how she wasn't found for 3 days.

My grandfather moved back to Harlan, Iowa within weeks of his wife's death. I don't think he grieved, which I can't much blame him for...he'd lived a nightmare. But fate smiled on him. Leona, his sweetheart from years back, had been divorced and a single mother for years. Her children were all grown and she was pleased to welcome her old beau back into her life. They were married within 6 months of my grandmother's death.

They were happy together and lived a quiet life in the small community they both loved. My grandfather died of cancer just 5 years ago. Leona is still alive, although she is living with Alzheimer's, in the town where she was born and raised.

Of all my ancestors, I think my grandmother has had the most profound effect on my life to date, both directly and indirectly. Directly because she shaped my father's personality through trauma, and indirectly because I have always wanted to know how it all happened. Everyone jokes that therapists and social workers usually have good familial reasons for seeking out the work that they do...well, she is, in great part, my reason.


the urban fox said...

Families are fascinating, and you tell your tales very well. How amazing that Leona came back into your grandfather's life after all those years. Happy birthday to Papa Spin too.

Lucy Stern said...

Too bad your dad had to live with all of that. I'm sure your grandmother wouldn't have been so bad if she had been on medication. I suppose this is just all part of life. I'm glad your grandfather was able to live out his last years with someone sho could love and care for him. Thanks for the story.

spinsterwitch said...

Lucy - I'm not sure what medication would have done for my grandmother. I think that there were other things, perhaps her own history of abuse, that also effected how she treated her children, and no doubt her husband, although that's never spoken of.

I say this because not everyone with undiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses are abusive to their children, and I'm worried that I've given that impression in my post.

I am just sorry that she never was able to receive the help that she so needed and deserved to have. So I will never know.

red one said...

I think it's nice that you remember your grandmother's kindness to you. That's not to ignore or belittle the awful, painful experience your dad must have had, or the difficulties for your granddad. But given that she never had the help or treatment she needed, at least she's got someone who can remember her kindnesses - the nice part of her that maybe never had the chance to get out much.

More cheerily, Spin, you have given me a massive earworm. Why you didn't do this a couple of days ago, I don't know...

They say in Harlan County, there ain't no neutrals there. You'll either be a union man or a thug for JH Blair.

Which side are you on? Which side are you on...?

Is it that Harlan, or are there lots?


Fred said...

What a story. I'm sure I've said this before, but the fact that you can document all this is fabulous. It makes me want to sit with Mom and Dad and get it all down before I lose the chance.

Hippy Chick said...

Happy Birthday Daddy P! :)You really need to write a book...

spinsterwitch said...

Red - Actually Harlan, IA is in Shelby County. So I don't think it's the same place the song is referencing.

Aravis said...

I feel so badly for your grandfather and his children, including your father. This disease runs rampant on my father's side of the family, and not everyone takes their meds. My father didn't slit his wrists; he used a gun. It was then I learned to be afraid of what it might do to me and those I love if I didn't take my meds. I know a little of your grandmother's pain, too, and feel badly that there were no options, no treatments for her. The anger and the pain are difficult to live with, even (especially?) when you're the one who's angry and hurting. I'm so sorry there was no other way out for her, at least in her mind.

I'm glad, though, that you had those memories of happy times with her. I think that would mean a lot to her, knowing that.

And a very happy birthday to your father. May each one be better than the last...

Charby said...

Happy birthday to your dad!
I love the fact that Leona came into your granddads life again. Some things are just fate I guess!

cutie said...

Ahhh...your Grandmother could be my sister. She was almost 40 before being diagnosed as Bi-Polar. Though I knew it years before, but no one listened to me. And you are right, social workers/psychologists are in it for the self-preservation and to find answers to their own dilemmas.

Good Post, and thanks for visiting my blog!