Sunday, September 05, 2010

The American Dream

When I went to the cemetery to pay my respects to my grandparents, I left with many emotions and many thoughts to ponder. One thing I discovered was how little I knew about my family. Buried next to my grandmother was Mamie Barthel Hathaway. I'm embarrassed to admit that, at the age of 58, I had not known that my grandmother had a sister, who had died at the age of 26! Next to Mamie was Hollis Fannin Barthel, my grandmother's son, who died just shy of his second birthday. His portrait had always hung in my grandmother's bedroom, but my brother and I only learned who the beautiful child was after my grandmother took the portrait to be cleaned and repaired. She reported to my brother that, after the frame shop had finished with it, they hung it on the wall in the shop, until she could pick it up. The shop keeper told her that several people had been so taken with the little boy's picture, that they had asked to buy it. "Can you imagine?" my grandmother said with indignation. "How in the world could I sell my own son's portrait?!" Nearby was a headstone, engraved simply "Infant Adams, January 26, 1914." And so I learned that my grandmother's first child had been stillborn.

It may seem incredible that I've known so little about my family. We always had a close relationship with my maternal grandmother and my mother's sister, Aunt Jing. But I never knew that my great-grandmother had died when my grandmother was only 10 years old. And I was in third or fourth grade when I learned for the first time that I had a grandfather who had spent about 30 years in a VA psychiatric hospital. Of course, back in my childhood, most adults felt the need to shelter children from the harsh realities of life. But when I think back to the conversation which surrounded me in my grandmother's living room or around our big circular dining room table at our house when the family gathered, I remember family tales of accomplishment, togetherness, and relationship, not tragedy.

Similarly, only towards the end of my mother's life did I learn of some the adversity she had faced. I had never known that when her father returned from WWI, traumatized by his experiences as a medic on the battlefields of France, he could not accept this baby born in his absence. I knew my mother, as a teenager, had gone to boarding school, working for room and board, and I had sometimes wondered why her sister had stayed at home. Only as my mother neared the end of her life, did I learn from my brother the sad story. When my mother was 12, my grandmother sat her down and basically said, you know your father can't accept you, so it would be better for everyone if you went to boarding school. When my mother had talked about school, she spoke proudly of working hard and graduating when she was 16, and her only complaint was that on Sunday evenings, they always gave the students a sack lunch with a peanut butter and banana sandwich, the smell of which ever since would turn her stomach. She came of age during the Great Depression and started her family as WWII began. When I was growing up, she made occasional reference to "during the Depression" or "during the War," but her stories almost never touched on hardship.

As I learned more about our family and its trials and tribulations, I felt humbled by what I learned. I thought of how we complain in these present times, how we bemoan the "Death of the American Dream." Most of us interpret the "American Dream" as the promise that things are always getting better, that if you work hard, you will improve your lot, and that your children will have things better than you did. I came to realize that this "American Dream" is the fantasy of us Baby Boomers, who happened to grow up in a time of prosperity and optimism, that came on the heels of depression and a horrific war. I considered the lives of our parents and grandparents, only one and two generations behind us. Their lives were a constant struggle to get by, and they were buffeted by frequent tragedy. Yet, at least in my family, they seemed to concentrate their attention on what they accomplished against the odds and how they supported each other. Perhaps that is the real American Dream.

Every chapter

Returning from St. Louis a couple of weeks ago, I left the interstate to take the route through Muskogee. This was the hometown of my grandparents and my parents. As a child, I spent a week or two there every summer, staying with my maternal grandmother, "Gaga" Adams, and making the rounds to visit all the other relatives who lived in town. Gaga was the last surviving grandparent, and after she died in 1974, I had not been back to Muskogee since her funeral.

I headed straight for the cemetery, where I stopped in the little office to inquire about the location of the graves. First I found my paternal grandparents' grave and the nearby grave of my dad's sister, who died last fall at the age of 98. Then I drove to Gaga Adams' grave.

And then the tears welled up, as all the memories from so many summers washed over me. I remembered the anticipation as we neared Gaga's house, usually after the sun had already gone down. How vividly I remembered that sort of cooing sound she made, as she fussed over us, and how she smelled of face powder and Sweetheart soap as she kissed us. I remembered that we sat around her Formica kitchen table and ate vanilla ice cream with Hershey's syrup. I thought of how the whole family would sit in the little living room, and the grownups would talk, and I would amuse myself or, if my aunt was visiting, too, I would sit on the floor while she brushed my hair. And I thought of those times when Gaga took us out to her beloved Sallie Brown School, the little two room schoolhouse, once a chapel, where she began teaching at the age of 17.

And the tears ran down my cheeks as I realized that when my brothers and I are gone, there will be no more direct memories of these precious people. At some point they would be like others in this cemetery: a name on a headstone at an unvisited grave.

I came back home in a somber mood, weighed down by the thought that the real loss that comes with death is the end of a lifetime of memories, and the end of the living connection with the past. And then I happened upon John Donne's Meditation XVII, which begins, "All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated." How those words spoke to me at that moment!