The legacy of my Patriarch (personal thoughts)

Learn something new everyday. Today I was informed for the first time ever by my Grandma that my Papa had once upon a time (in the early 1960s) become involved with the Ku Klux Klan during their short stint living in Louisiana. She claimed that for a couple years there he got pretty wrapped up in it, going so far as to donate so much of his paychecks that he was leaving his wife and young son to go without, which is what prompted her to call her brother-in-law to drive over and bring her and the kid back to Mississippi to live with her sister for a while. Wow. That was news to me.

Not that I wasn’t aware that my Papa was a racist man. That was a matter he and I couldn’t see eye to eye on the majority of the time. I recall once relaying to him a statistic I’d learned in school that showed more white people receive welfare benefits than blacks, just due to white folks being the overwhelming majority in this country. And he flipped smooth out, refused to believe it. And, as is pretty common down South, I was forbidden to date or hang out with black males. Even got in trouble once for hanging with a Filipino classmate since Papa proclaimed his “kinky hair” evidence enough of him being black. Papa could be very ignorant that way. I grew used to it over time…

And I moved away, permanently, first chance I got. Not for that reason specifically, just that I found the South generally stifling.

Grandma has been sharing a lot of stories I hadn’t heard before ever since Papa passed away in 2011. She feels freed up to do so. They did not have a happy marriage, which isn’t news to anyone who knew them, but it’s rather sad how awful it really was, particularly back when their kids were young. Today she mentioned a story I’d heard a little about once upon a time where Papa slammed her head into a wall, saying that had she hit the wall a little farther over on the corner, it might’ve done serious, possibly fatal, damage. He was a bad drunk back then, and he also used to pop pills (no clue what kind since Grandma generically refers to it as “dope”). Makes me sad to hear all of that, though I grew up hearing plenty of stories along that line already.

I always wondered why she stayed with him. It’s the question that drove my mother away from all of them, having grown up despising her father. Grandma has always defended herself by explaining that her parents were miserable people to live with, so she married to escape them, and unfortunately landed in a situation no better. Once she had kids she felt trapped, especially considering she never learned how to drive. But she did leave him a few times, like after the problems in Louisiana where she moved in with her sister, but her sister’s husband was another bad man who couldn’t keep his hands off of people (or children), making it impossible to remain living there. I grew up with that great-uncle living across the street and can attest to how perverted and scary he is. Another time she moved back in with her parents, but her mom complained so much that it proved to be an intolerable living situation.

She told lots of stories today, as she does from time to time…

Grandma blames herself and wishes she could go back in time and make different choices, at least for her kids’ sake. And she’s always claimed that she did her best to not let the kids hear them fighting, though I’m aware her efforts there proved insufficient, and during the times when she was away working and Papa was unemployed he had the opportunity to give their kids a hard time. My mother isn’t too right in the head, it’s true, but she hates her father with such cold, seething conviction that it’s obvious bad blood existed between them since way back when. Recalling from when I was younger listening to him refer to my mother as a “bitch” with such venom in his voice, I recognize the hatred must’ve been mutual. That’s always bothered me and still causes me pain, having grown up surrounded by all this rage and pain and frustration running in all directions. And it’s still around…never fully dissipates…

Since Papa passed away, Grandma’s found strength she didn’t before realize she had. She felt dependent all her life, unfortunately. But now she realizes the err in her ways, just too late to do much about it. Says she doesn’t talk to her kids about what all went down between her and Papa that they don’t already know about because she had tried to shield them from that and also she worried they might not believe her. But my mother believed her — she knew. And she left and moved far away because she couldn’t stand it.

A few weeks before he died, Papa finally broke down and apologized to Grandma for treating her so bad, and she keeps repeating this story to me, again and again, telling how she wanted to scream in that moment but instead just walked out of the room and had to go cry elsewhere in the home where he couldn’t hear her. Vindication that came far too late…

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve shared the positive side of my Papa and my loving feelings for him, but I’ve been reluctant to say too much about the negative side since he passed away. The truth of the matter is he was a tyrant, or at least he was for a long portion of his life. He could be cold and vicious to people, sometimes warranted, other times not. His memory leaves us all conflicted, that is evident. He was better to me than he was to most of the others, which just invited their scorn and has left me torn, because he was my primary father-figure too. Sometimes I feel deeply ashamed of him and all the bad things he did to people. Other times I’m glad that he quit drinking and in his own cantankerous way tried to do better with his life. Just wish he hadn’t left so many scars on people’s psyches, because it all carried forward. His legacy is one infused with pain and fierce rebellion and, for some, outright denial.

I am a lot like him in ways. More so than the other relatives. And I’m not always sure how to feel about that. I’ve come to clearly see our destructive potential and the burden it imposes. It’s kinda scary actually and is a big reason why I decided many years ago to never have children.

What does one do with this? I feel like I wander through life dragging a bag of memories, my own and those I’ve collected from others along the way. It’s what living is for me. I’ve tried to put it down again and again, but memories are like ghosts that follow and torment you. People like to think it’s so easy to just walk away from it all and to block it out of your mind, but it isn’t. I’m a memory collector, plain and simple, and I share my stories because they reflect reality as I understand it. All is more complicated than meets the eye. “Good” and “evil” shake out as they do in unequal measure and are interpreted through our biased lenses.

The Big Man in my life wasn’t a very “good” man, at least by popular standards. Sad as that is to plainly state, though acknowledging that I’m not either and perhaps our type(s) serve purposes that deserve to not be entirely minimized. Either way, I appreciate what all he did for me, but I also remain embarrassed for the downside (and for him having to endure it as well). Depends on which day you ask me though. Sometimes I laugh at his antics; other times I cry; other days my thoughts are flat on the topic. I understand him better than maybe I wish I did, which causes me to be cognizant of where I follow in his footsteps. His bitterness and sense of indignation I inherited (just not so much of his racist and sexist attitudes).

Forever pondering on what it takes to break these chains…

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7 Responses to The legacy of my Patriarch (personal thoughts)

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I dunno… I don’t really fathom a strong attachment to the past. The world seems such a huge place, with so much to explore, that looking out and forward doesn’t leave much left for looking back. I’ve always had the sense of the past being fixed and that all you can do is move on from it (so there’s no point in rehashing it much).

    Whether that’s an attitude one can pick up or not, I don’t know. It may spring from a fundamental world view and require seeing the world a certain way. (And I specifically have a manifest disinterest in the past, other than as a learning experience. My whole stance as a person involves “looking forward,” as it were, so I may (a) have no real appreciation for how other feel about their past and (b) maybe it’s just the case that some are memory collectors and others aren’t.)

    I clearly aren’t! I easily forget movies and books and events and even people sometimes. I could be the poster child for “Movin’ On!”

    • Byenia says:

      It’s a matter of one’s orientation, I do believe. I’ve always been past-oriented, and really, when you think about it, it makes sense that plenty of people would naturally be so, humans having evolved through traditions built on story-sharing to collect and dispense wisdom and to carry forward ongoing inquiries.

      One thing I find troubling today is how much pressure there is to live “in the moment” or to work for some vague future dream while dismissing the past as though it is irrelevant. As if humans could become a blank slate detached from all that came before in their own lives and across humanity dating back to antiquity. I’d go so far as to say there’s a decidedly “leftist” flavor to this push, this admonition, rooted in a desire to deny what we are and where we came from. I have little interest in entertaining that push any longer.

      You’ve told me many stories of your past in private, just as you’ve shared details on your blog, so I don’t know how you can claim to hold no interest in the past. lol

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Indeed. But then I never said I had no interest in the past.

        • Byenia says:

          It was heavily implied in your comment above.

          What happened, Wyrd? Did you hold a grudge just because I don’t see things your way over the whole 9/11 event? Because ever since then you’ve been extra-critical toward me. I’m writing my thoughts down here, because I can, because they matter in some way to me. I’m not on here to entertain or please others, and I will continue to work through my thoughts and feelings at my own pace and in my own way. It’s not hurting anybody for me to do so, and besides, there are countless folks out and about preaching about “living in the moment” and “moving on” to where there’s no shortage there. So I’m going to wrestle with what I feel I need to in my own space.

          You’ve shared about your mother, your ex-wife, your ex-girlfriends, your friends, etc., and I was cool with that and didn’t give you any grief. Because these are connections that matter to a person, just as my Papa mattered to me and the rest of our family.

          Besides that, few people seem to contest looking at the past when it comes to historical figures, eras, and religions deemed noteworthy, so why is it treated as something else when a person reflects on their own individual life and the lives of people they actually knew and were directly impacted by? That’s always struck me as so odd. Like an event or a person has to have widespread societal value or academic value in order to be considered worth pondering on. I find that really wrongheaded and dismissive of individual lived experience.

          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            You’re reading a lot more into what I wrote than exists there. I was providing a point of view in response to the last sentence of your post. There was no criticism, nothing about “living in the moment” and nothing about ignoring the past. Just that I — personally — don’t seem as attached to the past as others and that from what I can tell, it seems to stem from finding it more interesting to look forward and around than backward.

            • Byenia says:

              Apparently I didn’t read you right then. My apologies.

              Just kind of a sensitive topic here, so I didn’t care to have it bombarded with the usual “move on” and “learn to live in the moment” talk that tends to follow ruminations over one’s past. It’s so common, IME, that I suppose it has me a bit edgy when it comes to defending my own personal space to think out loud.

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