Honoring My Ancestors: For Heather Heyer

Me, on the set of the Dukes of Hazzard, 1977

“In an era of great division, a point that is often missed in the Confederate monuments debate is that most factions rightly agree that history should not be erased. The question is in how it should be remembered.” — Dr. Susannah J. Ural, “Let Us Speak of What We have Done”

Ancestry.com is a Pandora’s Box. I always knew that there were wealthy slaveholders on my mother’s side, who owned large plantations in Georgia before the Civil War. But I had been told by my father that they were the exception, not the rule; and that his ancestors had been of a different class, working poor who couldn’t have owned slaves even if they’d wanted to. But the hours I’ve spent on research have disproven any imagined innocence of my paternal line. Census record after census record show that many of my predecessors on both sides owned slaves. Some may have owned just a few, but others hundreds. Sometimes the first names of these slaves are listed in census documents, but more often not, as they were considered property. There are no records of them beyond that, where they were from or where they were buried. Their descendants can’t build family trees.

All of my ancestral lines came to America early. They turn up in the first censuses taken in colonies in what are now Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. A few were Pilgrims, several were Quakers (something I never knew) and a number were Huguenots (far more than I realized) who came here to escape religious persecution. Some came as indentured servants or prisoners of war, some as wealthy planters or traders. I’ve found four ancestors accused of being witches in colonial Massachusetts, and one hung for heresy. Many fought in the Revolutionary War, and many would fight in the Civil War, for the South. I qualify as both a “Daughter of the Revolution” and a “Daughter of the Confederacy” many times over. In other words, I’m the product of settler colonialism, both Northern and Southern.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that one branch of my family tree was triracial (Native, Anglo, African). My great, great, great grandmother was Annie Jean Jacobs of North Carolina. The North Carolina Jacobs have been multi-racial for generations, and can be traced back to one slave, Gabriel Jacobs, who was freed around 1690. My father told me that my grandmother had some Native American ancestry, although he kept changing the name of the tribe: Tuscarora, or Waccamaw, or Lumbee. He didn’t say anything about her African American ancestry because it had been a family secret, I think, for years. Studying the census, I can see that my Jacobs ancestors made a choice around 1850 to present as white; they had previously identified as free people of color. Other Jacobs identified as Native Americans, and I have found records that classify the same person as “Mulatto”, “White”, and “Indian”. The more that I look, the more stories I uncover about the “tri-racial isolates” (as anthropologists call them) of North Carolina. Their histories are case studies about the complex realities of racial identity in early America. I can see on paper the effects of changing laws (for example the one-drop rule) on the Jacobs over generations.

I wish I could share these discoveries with my father, but he isn’t speaking to me, because I don’t like Trump or the Confederate flag.

***

When people ask me where I am from, I tell them Atlanta, Georgia. If they ask me if I consider myself Southern, I say yes. I suppose if I tracked all my days from the ages of 0 to 18, most of them would have been lived above the Mason Dixon. But I spent the first 6 years of my life in Georgia, and my ancestors have lived in the South since before the Revolutionary War. Moving as a child to the most Yankee of places—Mystic, Connecticut—didn’t change that.

For those who aren’t locals, Mystic is beautiful historic village on the coast of Connecticut, close to the Rhode Island border. The Mystic Seaport is there, and the Charles Morgan, the only wooden whaling ship left in the world. Mystic is a place where the lines between past and present constantly blur, and it is easy to time travel there (especially as a teenager on acid).

After my stepfather got a job at the Mystic Seaport, he moved us into a house on Pequot Avenue, a street that cuts across the hills above town, running parallel to the river, down to the sea. Clift Street climbs up from the river to meet Pequot Avenue at its top. At the intersection of Clift and Pequot, there is an odd little roundabout, just a circle of grass, that forces drivers around it for no discernible reason. The roundabout isn’t a speed bump or an abandoned garden; instead it served for many years as the base for a statue of John Mason, a local colonial hero.

Mason’s statue was erected to commemorate a raid that he led on the Pequot tribe in 1637, afterwards known as the Mystic Massacre: “Major John Mason… said, We must burn them, and … brought out a firebrand, and putting it into the matts with which they were covered, set the wigwams on fire. Within minutes, Mistick Fort was engulfed … In one hour, more than 400 Pequot men, women and children were killed.”

The Pequot War is a pivotal moment in colonial history; the tribe was vanquished so the English could continue to take over Connecticut. Mason’s statue was placed near the approximate location of the Pequots’ fort, and its purpose was forthright: it was to mark, in space and time, the successful displacement of natives by settlers. The local people (including some Mason descendants) who devoted themselves to the cause of raising a memorial on Pequot Avenue—a considerable investment of time, energy, and money—did not question his heroism. Their intention was that the statue would evoke awe and gratitude in its viewers. After all, without Mason, there wouldn’t be white people in Mystic, or Connecticut for that matter.

As a kid, I didn’t understand that my house was built where hundreds of Native people burned to death. But the woods behind our house scared me, and I never explored it. I waited for the school bus at Mason, sometimes leaning against him, or climbing over him, or chasing my friends around him. I read the inscription on his base again and again—“Erected AD 1889 By the State of Connecticut to commemorate the heroic achievement of Major John Mason and his comrades, who near this spot in 1637, overthrew the Pequot Indians, and preserved the settlements from destruction”—but I didn’t wonder about the story being told, let alone the stories being left out. He was huge, bronze, and he had a sword. Looked like a hero to me!

But as I grew older, my feelings about Mason and his statue changed. I was not alone. Mason and his troops, despite their best efforts, didn’t kill off all the Pequots, and descendants of the massacre survivors still live in the area. After getting federal recognition in 1983, they built a huge casino on their reservation, Foxwoods, which became a spectacular success. Regaining economic and political power in Connecticut after centuries of marginalization, the tribe again became a force to reckon with, and they directed some of that force at taking Mason down. For them, the statue was an insult, the equivalent of a murderer doing a victory dance on top of his victims, and its removal was imperative. After years of efforts by activists, Mason was relocated, peacefully, away from the site of the massacre, leaving only grass behind. There was some local fuss but certainly nothing like the deadly riots over the Robert E. Lee memorial in Charlottesville. My stepfather, an old Yankee through and through, was fascinated by the archeologists digging around his yard. He did not protest Mason’s removal, unlike some of our neighbors, but he was once a history teacher, and better prepared than most to think through the complexities of public memorialization.

***

When the topic of Confederate memorials started appearing in headlines a few years ago, my first reaction was their removal was a bad idea. I imagined all the statues in little towns across the South, and then Charlottesville-style violence erupting at each one because of outsiders coming into peaceful communities. Leave those statues alone, I thought, don’t make trouble!

But then a friend from Mystic reminded me of Mason coming down. The statue’s removal and relocation were reparative acts. Instead of just accepting history as told by “the winners”, Pequot activists demanded acknowledgement of other perspectives. For them, Mason is nothing to celebrate; he destroyed their culture. By challenging the established narrative of his heroism, they made room for other views, for example that colonization is a cruel and destructive process, based on theft and murder. Their perspective is valid, and could apply to many other memorials on American soil as well.

My initial resistance to the removal of Confederate memorials was due to my consideration of only one side of the story. There are several men in my family tree who fought for the South. My mother’s elderly relatives in Eatonton, Georgia, still referred to “The War” and told stories passed down about Sherman’s March (his troops stole all the food but spared the Steinway piano). My father told me more times than I can count that the display of Confederate memorials and flags is intended to “honor our ancestors”. What he never mentioned, and still doesn’t seem to consider, is the perspective of the descendants of slaves. The Civil War and its aftermath are still quite present for them too, but there aren’t any flags or statues for their ancestors, although they suffered much more than ours did before, during, and after “The War”.

Many of my ancestors once owned slaves, and fought a war so that they could keep on with that owning. There is no way to separate that truth from the existence of Confederate memorials. Public sculptures aren’t just gravestones, created to honor individual family members. They are monuments in common space that everyone sees while going about their daily business. In my opinion, we should certainly remember and memorialize our dead, but we can’t ask (or force) others to honor them, as Confederate statues in public space demand. There are many bodies in Southern ground unmarked by even the smallest of stones: the bodies of people stolen from their families, then abused, and then buried in strange soil. We should remember and honor their lives too, rather than continuing to erase their histories.

***

Two years ago, in July 2017, I attended a festival organized by my father, Ben “Cooter” Jones, at his Dukes of Hazzard museum and store in Luray, Virginia. Although I was glad to be with my family, I was uneasy about everything else. My father had created the festival as a response to the ongoing controversy over Confederate symbols. It had been two years at that point since the Charleston shooting, and during that time, my father had doubled-down on his defense of Confederate flags and memorials, even serving as spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Because of his role as Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard, my father still has a certain celebrity. His events can draw thousands of fans. As a public figure, his opinions carry weight and have consequences outside our family. While wandering the midway, I tried to laugh with the crowds at the monster truck races and wrestling matches, but what I really felt was dread. I kept repeating “freedom of speech, freedom of speech” to myself, as if that would fix what was going on around and inside me. My father’s anger at “Political Correctness” was spilling out more often, both onstage and off, and he was directing some of it at me, the lefty, queer New Yorker. The audience gave him validation for his beliefs, something I could no longer do.

In August 2017, just a month after my father’s festival, a group of white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a town an hour south of Luray. They came to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee memorial. They flew Nazi and Confederate flags, burned torches, and chanted racist and fascist slogans like: “Jews Will Not Replace Us.” During the rally, James Fields, a neo-Nazi, rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and injuring almost 20 other people. He was sentenced to life in prison for this act, after pleading guilty to 29 hate crime charges.

My father is holding another festival this summer, two years almost to the day of the Charlottesville riot. I wonder if he chose the dates that he did because he is aware that some of his fans were likely at the rally in 2017, flying Confederate flags purchased from his stores. Perhaps he is trying to offer them an alternative venue for their complaints, to make things safer for them and for those they disagree with. I hope so.

I’m sad about my estrangement from my father, because I love him, no matter what differences we have. This is not our first falling out, and perhaps we will be able to reconcile again. But it is more likely that our Civil War will continue. My father is furious because he feels that his freedom of speech is under assault, although in reality he remains completely free to fly the Confederate flag and to state his beliefs. And I’m furious too, about his demands that I respect and agree with ALL of his opinions, while not being allowed to have any of my own. It is an oppressive dynamic, a dictatorship rather than a relationship, and a double standard that is no longer acceptable to me.

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The Legend of Chicken Charlie’s Rock

Allow me to explain the legend of Chicken Charlie’s Rock. As you may have gathered, my daughter Marley has nothing to do with the tale, paths with Charlie having crossed nearly two lifetimes ago from her vantage point.

Marley in front of Chicken Charlie’s Rock, ’09

She simply accompanied me on a trip down memory lane. (Her sister Jules, aka Green Machine, was back at grandma’s house, glued to the weather forecast praying for snow).

Jules aka Green Machine frolicking in the snow, ’09

Naturally, the trip included a handful of slow laps around the same parking lot where my grandfather first let me drive. I was twelve, thirteen tops. Having just turned thirteen, Marley got her turn at the wheel, the same as I did–no gas, permitted only to ease a foot off the brake pedal, achieving no more speed than cruising on idle would allow. Still, I imagine it to have been as exhilarating for her as it was for me, sitting beside my grandfather in my mother’s newly acquired used car.

Chicken Charlie’s Rock started out simply as The Rock, a massive granite protrusion that I have since come to recognize as endemic to the New England landscape. Our rock sat in the woods just behind the Village Green Apartments where my sister and I moved with our mother the year our parents split up. In time, Kim found her set of friends and got on with her thing. And I found my set of friends, Gary C. principal among them. We spent the vast majority of our spare time exploring the woods, at first on foot, then by bicycle. Eventually, we acquired motorized transportation allowing us to explore the far reaches of the woods by dirt bike, a string of secluded waterfalls leading the way to an abandoned rock quarry. The details of our gas-powered antics will have to wait for a future installment of my tales of a kid from Connecticut, making his way in the world.

The Rock played a central role as home base for our activities during breaks from school. We waged one-pump BB-gun wars on and around the rock (thankfully, no one shot their eye out). We built forts. Debriefed atop the rock upon successful completion of our daily excursions, conjured future plans sitting in full survey of the entire universe as far as any of us was concerned. We formed and strengthened bonds on that rock, tested allegiances. Through thick and thin, we grew up together.

Last and most certainly not least, I had my first kiss on the rock. We can debate whether woman or man is capable of achieving perfection. Whether any of us would know how to conduct ourselves if perfection were to show up one day and plop down in front of us. Still, I am eternally grateful to have borne witness to the tender beginnings of what I imagined at the time to be as near to perfection as might ever exist–Andrea P.

Andrea was outgoing, energetic, athletic. She would hang with us most every day, doing anything we could do and then some, though we never lost sight of the prospect that Andrea was separate from us. She was GLORIOUS–outgoing, energetic and all that jazz, and glorious to boot.

I can still picture her–even brown skin with deep set eyes like she was imagining things bigger than the rest of us were capable of comprehending and a mouth that made you wonder why lips were ever used for anything other than kissing. It would be years before I’d get another glimpse at perfection, that shift in perspective that occurs when you meet someone so far removed in thinking, in examining the world from anyone you’ve encountered, who inspires you to be more than you might have known achievable without the benefit of her outlook.

Even Andrea can’t claim responsibility for the naming of Chicken Charlie’s Rock. Charlie was a kid who moved to Village Green a couple of years into the rest of us having settled in the neighborhood. He earned the Chicken part on account of his run–stiff and upright, a cardboard cutout of a kid pushing like a sheet of plywood against a determined wind. A thick mop of rust colored hair stood on end, flopping in rhythm with the breeze to form the crowned comb atop a rooster’s head. This coupled with an innate chicken-shit demeanor and Charlie couldn’t hope to escape the nickname.

One summer, we found ourselves in possession of a length of sturdy rope. We tugged on it, swung on it, bound and tied various things with it, Chicken Charlie included if memory serves. Gary and I eventually got the notion to drop the length of rope down the face of the rock and scale the damn thing. This was well before rock climbing was popularized as sport, housed in purpose-built gyms. Instead, we climbed to achieve the pinnacle of adventure for boys growing up in Village Green.

For reasons I can’t remember, Chicken Charlie accompanied us on our maiden voyage, our trusty rope securely in place. But, being Chicken Charlie, he couldn’t be convinced to venture a climb. After several successful roundtrips apiece, Gary and I headed down the face for lunch. When we stepped outside again, we were met by a high-pitched screeching. We took off in the direction the woods where we found Charlie dangling from the length of rope having steeled his nerves to attempt the climb in private, free from jeers over his upright, stiff, plywood way of doing things.

Whether midway up or midway down the face, only Charlie can say for certain. But there he was, clinging for dear life, screaming at the top of his lungs for somebody to save him. We sprang into action. I took my place as spotter at the base of the rock should Charlie lose his grip and fall the rest of the way to the ground while Gary sprinted around to the summit then scaled down the face and escorted Charlie to safety–all in a day’s work for a couple of boy adventurers. And that’s how The Rock came to be known as Chicken Charlie’s Rock.

Everything changed after school resumed that fall. Andrea advanced to junior high leaving us to toil another year steeped in our elementary school, king of the hill, BB-gun warrior nonsense. She and her family moved out of state within the ensuing year. Gary’s parents found more spacious digs to accommodate their brood a couple of streets over, within the same neighborhood. But that quashed nearly all activity around the rock as the center of our daily adventures. Chicken Charlie eventually disappeared too. I can’t tell you with any certainty what any of us did the next summer. Some things together, many other things apart from one another. Junior high and high school eventually exposing us to our respective, separate new worlds. But that summer forged bonds that have persisted to this day.

 

 

I have limited interest to unearth what became of Chicken Charlie. But look who I found via Facebook–Andrea P. decades removed from those days on The Rock but little worse for the wear. And still Glorious. (Images used with permission.)

Andrea P. - teen years

Andrea P. – teen years

 

Andrea P. twenties
Andrea P. – twenties
Andrea P. - recent
Andrea P. – recent photo

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Goodbye Moonshine Man

I am sitting in my small Santa Monica apartment when Mom calls. She refuses to take her anti-psychotic medication these days, dozing in and out of sanity. It’s hard to believe if what she is saying these days is true or not. “Charlie, Haliti vdiq.” She speaks very matter of fact. “Haliti died” Grandpa had rarely been sick, he was a tough Albanian country man, who religiously brewed his own moonshine with the grapes that grew in his garden. But I believe Mom. Partly because a few seconds into our conversation my younger brother texts with the news.

But still neither mom’s words nor my brother’s message hit a cord, no tears, no sick feeling in the stomach, nothing.

It isn’t that I don’t care about my grandfather. I believe I loved him. Last time I had seen my grandfather when I visited Albania, I stayed with him and grandma. At 76 he hadn’t slowed down a bit. When the 6ft wall that separated his garden from the neighborhood had been damaged in an earthquake, he dragged his hurt leg and re-built it himself. Brick after brick. He refused any help.

At the end of the trip I remember grandmas last words.

“Call us okay?” she says as we hug one last time and the smell of her warm cooked peppers wafts off the white gauze scarf she wraps around her grey bob. Now guilt rushes in.

I never call my grandparents after that trip. Not once.

“What a cold hearted bitch” I hear my inner voice railing on me. “Why hadn’t I?”

I know being an immigrant has toughened me up in some ways. And it had also numbed me.

Numbing up was a better guarantee of survival. My family’s first many years as immigrants in the US were fraught with so much drama, pain and poverty. When my mother’s mental illness got out of hand, I was the only one in the family to admit there was something wrong and eventually had to make the call that landed her at Bergen Regional, a mental hospital in New Jersey. I was nineteen. Already having spent 10 days in a looney the year prior when I’d called the suicide hotline.

Mom was the one who usually called our extended family in Albania. The last few years the relationship between her and my grandparents had been strained.

Dad had told me that she’d often call my grandmother at 2 or 3am Albanian time and go on one of her delusional rants. Speaking about dead Albanian relatives she’d seen roaming the streets of Hackensack New Jersey, where my parents now lived.

Dad would have to intervene or eventually grandma’s patience would run out and she’d hang up, usually in tears, upset Mom was so delusional. I felt too embarrassed to call grandma. I always felt I had to make excuses for mom.

When my grandparents refused to accept mom’s invitation to come visit us in America Mom had been furious and upset. I understood and was angry with her, but I also realized my grandparents had spent a lifetime dealing with a daughter who seemed too wild, too much for them. For most.

“They never loved me” Mom moaned for days, weeks, months, then eventually her madness got the worse of her. She rarely spoke of them anymore. I never knew what had really happened between Mom and her parents when she was young. I wish I knew.

My grandparents were tough country folks, they were also kulaks. Persecuted by the communist regime because their families had owned lands pre-communism. My grandfather’s dad, my great grandfather had hung himself off a fig tree in his land when the communist came to snatch everything he’d worked for. My grandpa had to learn to fend for himself early on.

I want to cry for my grandfather, I want to be there for him, but I can’t.  To cry means to feel the pain and to remember the past. To forgive him and grandma for never visiting us, for whatever I assume they might have done to Mom. For sometimes wondering if his moonshine obsession had something to do with Mom becoming addicted to alcohol from an early age.

I call my brother Ergi in NY. It’s already ten in the evening there. His work as an inner city teacher and his second master’s studies keep him busy. But he answers. “I meant to call you but it’s been crazy.” he says, sounding exhausted.

“I know it’s okay”

“You got my message about grandpa?” he asks worried.

“Yea, mom called too. She didn’t even sound upset”

“Yea that’s mom for you, she’ll panic over the silliest thing but her father dies you’d think she didn’t even know the guy.” Ergi ads sighing in a tired laugh.

“How are you feeling though?” we rarely speak these days.

“Better than I thought. It’s crazy how living apart makes you not as upset, you know. It’s like you let yourself feel and in some ways you’re kinda fucked cuz you can’t do much about it. I mean I haven’t seen the guy in forever. I’ve forgotten what he looks like.” His words are somewhat comforting. I know exactly what he means.

I decide to rummage through some old boxes where I’d hid old photographs of my family. Some from my childhood in Elbasan, Albania. Some from our early years as fresh off the boat immigrants in New Jersey.

Black and white photographs of our family at the beach before life in Albania became a shit show and even those gorgeous beaches were too dangerous to visit. Black and white photos of me as a baby. The first colored photo of my little brother and I posed in a bush in the main park, taken by one of the local photographers since nobody owned personal cameras. Photos of our parents’ wedding, even one of my mother in the special black wedding dress my paternal grandmother had sewn of her.

But no photos of Grandpa. I quickly rummage my memories of him. They always begin in the house he’d built in the north end valley of our lil ol city of Elbasan. His immaculate garden, chickens running around kookooing, the whole property surrounded by his all organic white and red grapes. So many you’d bump your head thru the bushels as you walked through the front gate in the later summer months. The time when I was seven and sat on his lap curious as to what that wood oven in the middle of the garden my dad had built for him was being used for.

“I wanna try grandpa” He doesn’t hesitate.

The small shot glass smells like rubbing alcohol and grapes. It’s warm, immediately comforting but also nauseating. I take a small sip feeling the heat burn up my insides.

“Yuck” I pucker my lips and run off. Grandpa laughs.

Then there is Grandpa sitting on the veranda, writing in his mysterious notebook in the early afternoons. A notebook he keeps locked in an old wooden box at the foot of his bed. Grandpa was a serious man. He spent hours watching the news. Yelling at the politicians on the screens for making empty promises. Then I remember grandpa, who wasn’t one to give compliments, telling me one hot summer afternoon when I am twelve: “You’re smart, you know. You can make something of your life.” I don’t know what to make of it. “Did he mean it? Or was he trying to make up for the times when he’d make fun of my dad for not being able to hold his alcohol well.”

My heart is softening up but my mind is still fighting it. I wish I could’ve been closer to my grandparents. I wanted to know them better, as an adult. I wanted to ask them about mom. Sometimes I’d blamed them for her madness. “They must’ve done something to her.” I remember feeling upset as a teenager when mom’s madness hit its peak. But I would never know. I close my eyes and realize I don’t want to live with anger in my heart for a dead person. I have to let it go, all of it, the questions and the silent accusations. I imagine his soul somewhere between the living in the dead. “I hope you hear me. I didn’t know you so well but I want to wish you a good afterlife. Goodbye Moonshine Man.”

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Living in Sin

Recently, writer Royal Young suffered the loss of his grandfather, Zayde.  As he writes in Fameshark,  his memoir noir (Heliotrope Books 2013), “My maternal grandparents Babbi and Zayde supported everything that had to do with the arts. Their three-story house in Great Neck, Long Island was crammed with Zayde’s impressionist paintings and Babbis’ sculptures.”  Royal called it “Jewish Grey Gardens”, and everything about this picture was in direct contrast to my own maternal grandparents.

This month marks the tenth anniversary of my grandfather’s death, and I feel nothing, really.  We were not close since twenty years prior, though close is a stretch to define our relationship even at all.  Anthony Beaudry, my aloof French-Canadian grandfather: he smoked cigars incessantly, my father hated cigars. Whenever my grandparents came down from Worcester, Massachusetts, to visit us at my childhood home in Noank, Connecticut, Anthony was forced outside to smoke his smelly cigars. Yet the house reeked all weekend and even after they left. My other three grandparents, Anthony’s wife Louise Caputo, my paternal grandmother, Helen Pelosi, and my namesake paternal grandfather Rocco Gemma, all radiated an Italian warmth, or at least parlayed easy company.

I left the United States on January 4, 1989 to study abroad for my last college semester, meaning I would graduate while in Grenoble, France, and I had no intention of returning home for an anonymous graduation at UCONN.  Plus, my parents’ divorce was finalized on August 17, 1989, a process that started in the spring of 1987 when my sister was just about to graduate from high school.  Time was up, and my mom made the announcement, as soon as I got settled in my first dorm room, fourth semester, up at UCONN Storrs. I had just moved out of the house in Noank, after living at home for my first three semesters at UCONN Avery Point.

My sister had started college in the fall of 1987 at URI, and seeking sisterly solace would drive Route 138 West over to UCONN most every weekend, not wanting to go home to Noank.  My parents had separated, but due to each of them not wanting to grant the space to the other, they were still living at the same address: my childhood home, a raised split-level ranch, where my mom lived in the upstairs, and my dad lived in the downstairs- a situation that was not fun for anyone. It took another year before my mom moved out, in the fall of 1988.

I was ready to move off campus as well, three semesters of dorm living were three too many for me. In the same fall of 1988  that my mom moved to a temporary place in her hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts, I moved into a modest Colonial  brick house with four other roommates that I had casually met in the last year, three boys from Fairfield County and the sweetest hippie girl from Norwich.  My sister Maria continued to visit me at UCONN, arriving at the brick house most every weekend. When I left for France in January 1989 for my eighth and final college semester, Maria transferred from URI to Northeastern in Boston, and looked up one of my former brick house roommates, who had already transferred to UMASS Boston.  She moved in with him, as a familiar counterpart. During the year that I was abroad, their friendship deepened from the platonic to the romantic.  When I returned at the end of 1989, it was official that they were an item.

The first family function in Worcester that spring of 1990 was a cousin’s school graduation, and my sister and her boyfriend planned on driving down from Boston to attend.  My maternal grandfather, Anthony Beaudry, announced that he would boycott the family event, if Maria and her boyfriend made an appearance.  They were living in sin, according to my grandfather.  I remember being shocked that he was actually taking a stand on this distinction. He had, heretofore, never crystallized an official definition of his Catholicism. I felt that I was already growing apart from the totality of family gatherings in Worcester, having been raised in Noank since I was five, and I was at that point, barely attending the annual Christmas Eve dinners. My parents’ divorce had far-flung all previously engaged in rituals, so it was basically a free-for-all for my sister and I.  We were already feeling the guilt trip that each parent passively placed on us to divide our time evenly, while visiting each side of the family in Worcester for Christmas Eve: the only relief was that at least the host of each family gathering was conveniently located just a few miles apart from each other.   We tried to make it a party and have fun ourselves, but there was never a moment that we didn’t feel some guilt, if we had inadvertently let the moment escape at one house, we knew that disappointment would follow at the next stop.

But, my grandfather’s stand clearly required a response. I wrote him a letter, urging him to reconsider his position; that times had changed, and modern relationships were strengthened with cohabitation. That as a couple had the chance to live with one another,  they could discover if their relationship would survive in the long run.  As children of divorce, we most wanted to not get divorced.  We watched our grandparents,  in what we interpreted as loveless marriages: separate bedrooms, which seemed frightening, and  each grandfather barking orders to each grandmother, who waited on him “hand and foot”, because… he… worked…all… day. Then we watched our parents get divorced. This is not what we wanted.

Anthony Beaudry would not budge, in typical stubborn stance. He wrote back to me, claiming ownership to his religious principles, which forced him to be inflexible in his points of view. I was disappointed, and other relatives intervened on my sister’s behalf, and life moved on.  In the summer of 1990, I was not only back from Europe, I was back from an ill-fated trip out west in the US which resulted in a ski-trip accident in Vail, Colorado, and then knee surgery and physical therapy back east. I started a relationship back in Mystic, with an old friend from junior high school. As late summer faded into the autumn, I was ready to get my own place in Mystic, and found a lovely apartment located within the glory of a local mansion, run by my friend Courtney’s family. My boyfriend Rich moved in with me that October 1st, just two short months after we started dating. I was now living in sin.

As my sister and I were the two oldest cousins out of the eleven that comprised my mom’s side of the family, we were the first to experience the many rites of passage throughout our childhood. It makes sense that we would be the first to break ground in the family with boyfriends and living arrangements. As Grandpa Beaudry aged, it seemed to matter less to him, when my younger cousins experienced the exact same milestones, and they moved in with their significant others. My mother was always bitter about this. As well, my grandfather had tried to convince my mom against getting a divorce, on religious grounds, but he lost that argument.  He, however, in a finely tuned maneuver,   never acknowledged my mom’s new partner that she was living with in Mystic. My mom visited her parents solo from 1992 until her parents’ death in 2009, just ten months apart from each other: January 3rd and October 3rd, 2009.

I could never grasp religion with my grandfather’s type of dissociative fervor. In my childhood, I resented being brought to church weekly, and worse, being forced to attend “Sunday School” at the local high school, adjacent to my church, which was across from the town police station. I could not buy the basic premise of Catholicism, that the Pope was infallible. Noone was infallible. It did not make sense to me. I dreaded church and stopped going just after my confirmation.  I understand the structure that religion provides for the ceremonies of life- baptism and marriage, and for the ceremony of death.

Placing judgment on life itself:   to define “living in sin” did not have merit to me. The years passed quietly from 1989 to 2009 for me in my relationship with my grandfather. I was polite, dutiful in the sense, that I would not embarrass my mother. I even conceded a visit to him in the nursing home, when all that was keeping him alive was a feeding tube. His mind was gone, and his body followed on the third of January, 2009.

 

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