My father’s family has been in Brooklyn since the 1600’s. Seriously. I’m pretty sure that if we had had a relative on the Mayflower, I’d know it, but we were here since soon after that. Of course that is only Dad’s side. Our other sides are pretty much Johnny-come-latelies. In any case, it was inconceivable for my Dad’s family to imagine living anywhere but Brooklyn. Forget another state, Manhattan wasn’t even in the cards. Our two aunts and their husbands and kids lived in Brooklyn. Our uncle, (horror of horrors!) was sent kicking and screaming to Pennsylvania by his company. There was practically a wake over it. One of the things my father used to say was: “If you’re not in Brooklyn, you’re camping out.”
Our family got together every single weekend for my entire childhood in Brooklyn. The parents got together over whiskey sours and the kids were sent away with Pepsi, Coke, 7up and pretzels. After we hung around in our separate groups for a while, we would all have a big dinner then the mothers would clean up and the fathers would go smoke cigarettes and then we’d go home. Each holiday was also included, in addition to the weekends. This was our extended family, all of it, and we stuck together. We earnestly stuck together.
When I was about eleven, my father announced that it was time that we visit our mother’s mother.
(She had a mother?)
This came as a shock to me and my brother. We never knew she had a mother. We discovered that she actually did have a mother and she lived in CANADA! Her mother and some of her brothers lived in Manitoba on a farm.
(She had brothers?)
(They lived on a farm?)
This was before President Eisenhower started the Interstate Highway system we have today. It took five full days to drive on two lane roads from Brooklyn to Manitoba. This was summer, and I might point out for those of you who are young, there was no such thing as air conditioning anywhere, let alone in cars.
My brother and I fought the whole way for entertainment and my father kept trying to hit us from the front seat while driving, but we had mastered the art of not getting hit in the car by wedging ourselves in the far corners where his right arm swinging and punching at us while driving couldn’t reach. One odd thing I remember is that we got turned around at some point and my mom mentioned the placement of the sun and my dad actually backed out of South Dakota. How many people can say they have done that, eh?
When we arrived in Manitoba, which is a place that is actually NORTH of North Dakota, we found my Mystery Grandmother’s farm. My mother got out of the car and walked over to this teeny, tiny, squat old lady. This person was easily 145 years old.
Then my mother started speaking in tongues. My brother and I were thoroughly flummoxed. It appeared that our mother was speaking another language, unknown to us. Understand here that no one had explained anything to us. This mystery family we had never heard of, on a mystery farm in a foreign country NORTH of North Dakota, spoke Ukrainian. My brother finally gleaned this somehow. He was a pretty good detective, and four years older than I. I just thought the whole bunch of them were possessed.
There were more surprises. My mother had ten and a half brothers and one sister. On this trip we met some of them. There were the short, squat ones and the tall, thin ones. Their stature was divided approximately in half. We didn’t know what a half a brother was, but we left that one alone because taking in the whole our mom had a family thing was more than enough to process.
My Mystery Grandmother had fingers that were gnarled up as though they were in knots. She had NO fingernails. Not one. She didn’t even look in our direction for the whole visit, which I think lasted about four days. It was as though we were not visible. She totally creeped me out. As she showed no interest in me, and there was no way to communicate with her, it was not a problem staying away from her.
We never were told anything to call her, so I will just refer to her as MG. MG’s farmhouse had no running water. There was an outhouse, replete with spiders. There was a well for drinking from and a river for doing laundry, since the well water was too hard. MG’s farmhouse had no electricity.
Duh. We were from the CITY. We were from BROOKLYN!
We had traveled back in time to an earlier century.
The kitchen had a wood stove in the center. In the cold weather, (and let me tell you, there is some seriously cold weather up there in Canada, and I’m pretty sure that people still live there on purpose!), the family, each with his own blanket, slept in a circle in the kitchen around the wood stove. MG had burns all up and down her hands and arms because, for reasons I never knew, she had no feeling in her hands or arms, so she would constantly be burned by the woodstove in the winter because she was unaware when she was touching the stove.
This is the only picture of MG that someone took of my mother and my father and Woody and me with her. Here it is:
Later, when I was an adult, my mother showed me the other picture of her. This was with my Aunt Ann, the bigger one, and my mother, the little one, and her father and mother. She was told by her sister that her father wanted a picture taken of them with his girls. There is no picture of the myriad boys. My mother was also told that her father told my grandmother to take care of the girls, that the boys could take care of themselves. A few months after this picture was taken, my grandfather died of pneumonia after helping a neighbor pull his ox out of a frozen lake. No shit.
My Aunt Ann actually thought I was great. This was new to me, since my mother thought I was a waste of space. She sent smocked dresses to me by mail, which my girls wore also and I expect my granddaughters will, too. Of course, I never knew they came from her since I didn’t know she existed at the time.
I only met my Aunt once when I was about 13. I had never been on a plane. People just didn’t fly back then. The day before we left, I went to Coney Island with some friends and, since it was overcast, I assumed I wouldn’t burn. I was wrong. My mother had picked an outfit for me that was, oddly, the exact same color as my skin. This was a time when, if you DID fly on a plane, you dressed up for the occasion. I wore a bright red suit with patent leather shoes and a little hat.
My Aunt Ann had cancer. No one told me this. (Does anyone see a pattern forming here?) She was stick thin and could not walk. She sat, crumpled, on the couch. Later, spinal cancer was mentioned, but I never really knew what closed her eyes for good. Her husband, Uncle George, carried her everywhere. They had no children and were notoriously in love. They had owned and had been running a very successful restaurant in Calgary. (The restaurant business was something I was later to learn was one way her family escaped the farm.) We spent a few days with her, while huge swaths of my skin peeled off, rather like I was molting.
Soon after we returned from Calgary, my Aunt Ann died. My Uncle George totally disappeared. The restaurant was left abandoned. The consensus is that he could not live without her and killed himself in such a way as not to be found. I always thought this was incredibly romantic when I was young. Now, I think that perhaps he could have used some support to get him through the grief, but he wasn’t about to get that from my mother’s family. We were not a supportive family, on my mom’s side. Were my dad involved, he would have stayed with Aunt Ann until she died and then stayed with Uncle George until he was able get past the grief enough to accept living without his beloved. That’s how things were done in his family. But, then, my dad was not there. Abandonment is what was done in my mom’s family.
Recently I had occasion to order a certified copy of my birth certificate. (The surprises just keep on coming.) My mother’s place of birth was listed as California. So far as I know, my mother never set foot in California. Apparently, my mother lied on my birth certificate. How’s that for weird?