Yesterday was my Grandmother's birthday. January 11th. I think she would have been 94. I loved my Grandma. She was an amazing woman. Sweet. Simple. Kind. Quiet. She loved her cat, gardening, baking, pickling carrots, and going to church. She took care of the elderly doing home care for a living. A religious woman with a tender heart. The only thing she ever wanted was for our family to get back together again. It was ironic, yet poetic, that it took her death to do it. Literally her dying wish. She died on my birthday in 1998. I got a call from my Uncle Joe, who I rarely spoke to, called me at 12:06am. I was in college. I was up surprised yet impressed that he had remembered my birthday even if it was 6 minutes past. I picked up and said "Uncle Joe! You remembered my birthday!"
"Oh no." A soft voice said no the other end of the line.
I fell apart in my roommates arm while he just stood there not knowing what to do or say. I left the apartment and just ran as hard and as fast as I could until, after 10 miles I just collapsed and cried at a local park in the middle of Boone, NC.
The last thing she did was half finish writing a birthday card that she was going to send me before she was interrupted by a phone call from her adopted sister Gloria. The card half finished, she went to bed and never woke up. Passing quietly and peacefully in her sleep. A day or two later, my sister drove over to Appalachian State University from Wilmington, NC to pick me up and drive us to Vermont for the funeral. I was due to depart for Japan in less than a week. I almost didn’t go to the funeral. I'm grateful my sister took the reigns that night. I realize now that I don’t do well around death. I’m uncertain what it is. I’ve seen my system shutdown so many times in the face of it with others.
The whole experience was a whirlwind of emotion and events. Organized chaos. My Uncle Joe took care of everything from the funeral arrangements and hotels to limo to the wake. He was amazing. It was my first funeral. The last time I spoke to my grandmother I was crying. Upset that she wasn't coming to my graduation. Another moment I was trying to get my family back together. It felt like a good excuse and opportunity. Out of the 22 people I invited only my sister and mother showed up. My grandmother kept telling me it was too difficult for her to travel. I asked her what it would take and she just kept insisting that she couldn't. That she was scared to travel alone and concerned she would get lost in the airport. I didn't understand. I said I would get someone. We could make it happen. She cried in a space of helplessness. We both did. I was disappointed and upset. She asked me to send her photos of the graduation. I never did. Instead I would place them delicately in her hands of her lifeless body in an open casket.
My family has, in my experience, always been divided. Things got especially intense at my Uncle Joe's wedding in 1982 when my mother and her brother Tom, after a few drinks, got into it. We should have known it was gonna be a rough day when our dog Stony decided to go roll in cow shit and then run enthusiastically around the yard while people, mostly dressed in really fancy light colored summer clothes, were running away trying to dodge him like he was an on the loose firecracker. Yep this was gonna be a day. My sister and I got the honors of cleaning him. My mother and Tom hated each other and had PhD's in how to press each other's buttons. That evening mom insulted his honor and he slapped her and, after a brief pause, mom threw herself down a shallow flight of stairs. A lot of people saw it. Including me. Tom had been through a lot. He was a very proud Green Beret. It was his identity in the world and I think, in many ways, his true family. That's not to say he didn't care about his blood family. He did. Deeply, but he want to war with these guys. Many of whom died by his side and they were there for each other every moment 'til death due them part. One operation in particular that I heard he was a part of was helping rescue Black Hawk Down. I can only imagine.
From that day on I wouldn't see my cousins, aunts and uncles for another 14 and a half years and after the next summer, my grandmother for another eleven. Meanwhile I was just trying to run away from my mom all through grade and high school. It wasn't until 1997 when my love Laura, and I decided to take a road trip during Spring break and visit everyone, see my Father's grave for the first time in 13 years, see the house I grew up in and pick up what my father left for me at an attorney's office. Something that had been sitting there since 1984. It was during that trip that I met my cousins Tommy and Alexandra (Joe's children) and saw my grandmother. I came up to surprise her. I really didn't think anything of it. That is how numb I was. It just felt like 'oh I'm gonna go see Grandma. Drop by and say hello. We pulled up, I went to the side door and knocked like it was yesterday. She answered the door in complete disbelief with tears pouring out of her saying how much she had prayed this day would come. I didn't really understand at the time. So after eleven years we caught up and I took her out to Manchester to what I knew to be the nicest restaurant in the area, The Sirloin Saloon, where feasted on an epic steak and salad bar, talked about old times and caught up on the new. There was so much I didn't know. She spoke of her love who was lost at sea, my father, my grandfather and adopted sister I had never met. About her history with the church and our family pastor she cherished so much as well as how good Uncle Joe was to her. Most of what she was telling me about my direct family was the opposite of what my mother had told me. It was enlightening and bizarre to think and feel that so much of what I was told wasn't true. My grandmother had no reason to lie . She was objective while my mother was angry and, it seemed like, scared of something though I couldn't figure out what.
My grandmother was born Helen Conaty, though since she was married, Helen Booth. She had an adopted sister named Gloria Conaty with whom she was best friends. I would come to meet her at the funeral. They were so much alike. They even had the same handwriting. Hard to believe she was adopted. She was always taking care of other people and good at it. Including us. She really helped out my mom when she needed it most giving us a place to live while I was in 3rd grade. It was messy though my grandmother was really good about it. When she left to do some work in Florida my mom packed us up and moved us to a neighboring town of Manchester and told us not to tell Grandma. Grandma would come back to an empty house where the utilities were all turned off because the bills hadn't been paid. I didn't know what was happening. I just obeyed orders. It was weird to hide from Grandma. I still didn't know what happened. Grandma never knew and mom never said a thing though I'm sure she had her reasons. Mom was an amazing woman who was running from a lot of things and in a lot of pain. Given what I have been through recently I can understand though I don't know. I wish I did. It pains me to think that she lived her whole life like that burying it in alcohol and cigarettes. What happened to her? What could have caused my family to be so mysteriously divided?
The funeral was a sunny day. A few people spoke. My Uncle Tom stuck out. That side of my family is especially Irish. I vividly remember him finishing with the Celtic Blessing:
May The Road Rise Up To Meet You
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
I regret to this day for not speaking. Grandma and I were close.
She was such a sweet woman. Such a beautiful soul. Her rosary caught my eyes. We were told that we could take anything we wanted from the house to remember her by. I took a stuffed cat that looked like her cat 'Precious' and a set of her rosary. A lifelong Irish Catholic, she was deeply devoted to her church. I think it is where she found peace and hope in a family born in chaos. My understanding is that her husband's heart was torn to pieces with shrapnel from a legacy of war. My grandmother’s true love died while serving at sea during WWII. From what I understand she married Joseph, my grandfather, in the space of a rebound. A man who didn’t want children and had three. The first of which was my mother. I can’t pretend to even know what it was like to have a father who saw so much death leading men into battle to defend something. I have only heard that it was tough and he took it out on his family. Especially my mom. My mom and grandma used to smoke together when she was 14 before he came home. They used to bond over tobacco.
At some point they built a room in the attic, where my mother would hide for the majority of her teenage years. She often referred to something, an event, that happened when she was 5 or 6 years old. I could never get it out of her what exactly happened. I can make assumptions, but I won’t. Mom was the only one that didn’t come to the funeral. I wish I knew her heart better. She left 1000's of pages of her writings behind. I am excited to get back to collect them and begin to put the pieces together. I want to tell my mother’s story. She deserves it. We all deserve to have our story told. The more I get to know her the more I realize how little I actually knew her or anyone else in my family. Though what I did know was her heart. I had a bond with mom and grandma that defied anything else.
It was an incredible experience to be in the presence of family. It was to be the last time that we were all to be together as a family. Joe, Tom and Mom have since passed. While I was there I met family members I had never met before. That I didn’t even know existed. Cousins I didn't know I had, a grand aunt, and our famous family pastor that Grandma adored with all her heart. He spoke so eloquently at the funeral about her. He hosted her remembrance. I think she spent more time with him than anyone else. Everyone else had moved away. My uncle Joe was the exception. Although he lived in Utica, NY with a full time practice, he did everything that he could for grandma. Renovating her house, building her a deck, helping her out financially and driving the 3+ hour drive to visit whenever he could. He was a tender and quiet man. Much like his mother. A family practitioner with an enormous heart that he would always wear on his sleeve every day as he tirelessly saw patients at their homes, the hospital, his clinic and more. Wherever they were, he was there. It's just the way he was. A proud yet humble doctor who I feel like was running to something as much as he was running away from something. He was known for going above and beyond and his empathy.
After I reconnected with my grandmother she started sending me cards and care packages at college. College was tough for me. I struggled financially and often didn't have a lot of food. I would stretch 18 dollar over the week at the grocery store. My meal plan was $400 a semester and the prices were high to me as we had to use it on campus. My grandma knew that and one day I got this HUGE box and inside was food. It was epic. At the time I think I felt so unworthy to receive it I didn't even let her know I got it. She phoned me a few days later to see if it had arrived and I shamefully said yes not understanding why I didn't call her right away. To think that someone would do that for me. Clearly I was working through stuff. Thanks grandma. That touched me beyond words. Literally beyond words. Perhaps that is what it is.
Ok. So I'm working through it.
Almost twenty-three years later, my family is a mystery to me. More now then ever before.
I know them and yet I know them not. They are me and I am. As I have been moving though my own challenges and opportunities my heart, soul and inner child Issai, have been longing to connect to my family again for the first time. To read my mother's writings, to take a DNA test, to visit all the homes I have lived in, once again see my father's grave and stay in my grandmother's home for a few months while I help clean it up, plant her a garden, bake, trim the hedges and plant more trees and bushes on the property. After my Uncle Joe died they are looking to put the house up for sale. As much as I have been in a state of poverty for most of my life if there was something I would want to invest in it is to purchase that sweet little cottage. It's market value is around $140,000. A great location to have friends and family, to rent out as an airbnb as it is near several major ski resorts in an historical town and a place to get away and write, channel, read, and reconnect to the energy of my family at the only location we were at together. A sanctuary for those that need it. The house feels like a grandmother’s home cooked meal in every sense of the word. A Ben Franklin Stove, lots of windows, a cozy kitchen with everything you could ever want to cook, warm, an attic, a great cellar, really comfortable furniture, a shed with tools, a pond, an apple tree, blackberry bushes, and really comfortable beds as far as I can remember. Looking back I remember I used to spend a lot of time, like my mother, in the attic. I'll do what I can grandma. In the meantime, I'll head up there as soon as I can, and start the Ben Franklin stove, bake a pie and some cookies, pickle some carrots and celebrate in preparation for once again planting your garden.
Grandma stopped gardening because her back started to hurt her. She had a badass garden and was really passionate about it. For the last year I have been surrounded with opportunities to work in nature and plant. I love that idea though if there is anywhere I want to plant a seed it is at my grandmother's house and my mother figure Anita's house. If you ever forget where you are, go where your heart is because there you'll find everything you were looking for as it opens up inside of you reminding you it was there all along.
Thanks for everything grandma. I am so excited to sit in your beautiful home that you made for all of us and let my soul write as I discover deeper layers of myself, you and the mystery and magic that is our family. I love you. Always and forever.
P.S. Any help you can give me along the way to help me move in the direction that best serves my soul is appreciated and welcome always.