In sixth grade, I was smitten with Greek and Roman mythology. It may have been a result of my secular upbringing. Tell a child, she can’t have religion at home and she will seek it out somewhere else. My hunt led me to Hamilton’s Mythology, where my favorite tales were love stories; Clytie and Helios, Cupid and Psyche, Narcissus and well, …Narcissus. There were other gods and goddesses without romantic back stories that piqued my interest too, and now in the month that honors Janus, I’m reminded of him.
Janus was the god of beginnings and endings. Always depicted on gates and doorways, his two faces looking in opposite directions to glorify both the past and future. This new year, like the ones before, I too look at my past to find my future by seeking out the root of my family tree; my maternal great grandmother called GG.
If I use GG’s daughter (and my Grandma) Rose’s birth year-1900, as a yardstick, I can assume my great grandmother was born in Brooklyn sometime in the 1880’s. A child of a middle-class family with ties to a wealthier branch in New England, her life took an unpredictable and pitiful turn. At three years old, she had mastoid surgery that left her deaf and with a verbal vocabulary stuck in toddler-hood. Her family was able to send GG to school and attend special classes to learn sign language and lip reading.
Because GG raised five loving and gentle children, I assume she was a treasured child herself for most of her life, but time and culture were against her. At the turn of the 19th century, she was viewed as a product of a lesser god; unable to survive in a world meant for the healthy and strong. The best solution was to marry her off with someone equally damaged.
My great grandfather, Benjamin; charming, handsome and an alcoholic who burdened his family filled the requirements. I don’t know if GG ever liked him, but his children adored him. When she was a girl, Grandma Rose would accompany her dad to join up with his brothers at the local bar. By our standards, it would be ridiculous to meet someone with a drinking problem in a room filled with his enemy, but in that era, men met there when their subject matter couldn’t be talked about at home. Grandma and her dad always arrived early affording him a few swigs of courage before seeing the only relatives he still had ties with. Then he would wait in the men’s washroom (probably rinsing his mouth) while little Rose greeted her uncles. (Children were allowed in barrooms during daylight.) The uncles asked, “Did daddy have a drink?” She always replied no. Then her dad would make his entrance and chat with his brothers over a glass of milk. Grandma’s tale ended there, but I tend to think, Ben was there to borrow money.
GG managed to make a home in their cold water flat even with five babies, a pittance to survive on and a drunk for a husband. Unfortunately, Ben’s inebriation cost more money than his brothers were willing to give, leading him to drink cheaper and cheaper bootlegged liquor. On a winter’s night, handsome, charming Ben collapsed; dying in the hallway just a few feet from his apartment door-a victim of alcohol poisoning.
The police were called. A broad-shouldered cop dragged my great-grandfather’s body into GG’s parlor, sat on her couch, and then put his street-dirty boots on her coffee table while he wrote up the incidence. With no support, GG reached out to her mother, who visited with milk for the children and money enough to continue their humble life style. But, because Ben’s death was recorded in police records, Social Services visited the handicapped widow and her brood. Maybe the ear-piercing sounds GG made while she nimbly moved her fingers to express herself alarmed them, or maybe the used furniture and threadbare rugs told them all they wanted to know, because soon after, the authorities returned and took all of GG’s children to a Brooklyn orphanage.
Every day during recess time, the children would meet their mother at the high fence surrounding the play yard where she’d slip penny candies through the iron bars. In sign, she promised, she’d get them home. In silence, she unleashed her tears. Whether it took months or years, I’ll never know, but GG, despite all odds, rescued her children. They survived together, until one by one the siblings married and moved away.
Years later, my father bought GG an early black and white television. She loved to sit on her couch and watch whatever was on. We’d often catch her fast asleep in front of the screen, but woe be to anyone who tip-toed in to shut it off. She’d wake with a jump and promptly scold us soundly in screeches and flying fingers.
GG remained independent in her tenement flat until she left this world; a great-grandmother of three with many more to follow posthumously.
There are seasons in my life when I wonder how I will cope with some horrid shift in my paradigm; when things don’t go my way or turn out as I had hoped. It is then I remember my DNA. Happily, Benjamin’s alcoholism died with him, never to re-appear in any of his heirs while GG’s true grit pulses through my veins with every heartbeat. I can overcome anything because she conquered everything.
May this new year see you champion whatever hardship comes your way. Like Janus, look both forward and backward to enrich your life and if needed, you can always tap into your own private GG.