Last night my grandson, Matthew, called me from my hometown in New York and told me that one of his school assignments was to build a family tree all the way back to his great, great grandparents. My son was able to fill in most of the blanks but got stuck on my grandparents. I had no problem remembering my maternal grandparents, but could not shake my paternal grandparents’ names from my memory. Embarrassed, I gave Matthew a couple of names but they were only best guesses.
My paternal grandparents had 22 children; 17 boys and 5 girls. Whenever I tell people this the reaction is always the same: utter amazement. The most frequent comment is, “My God. That poor woman.” Indeed. Can you even begin to imagine a woman having nearly two dozen kids today? To this day I wonder how her body withstood this punishment. My dear grandmother—rest her soul—was virtually pregnant every year of her adult life until she died at the tender age of 44.
After I hung up the telephone, I got to wondering why I couldn’t for the life of me remember their names. They both died when I was very young, but that’s a lame excuse. As I dug a little deeper into my memory, it occurred to me that I never really knew them, nor did I know much about them. In fact, I knew very little about my paternal aunts, uncles and first cousins. Then it hit me. I never even had a relationship with my biological father. How could I expect to have a kinship with any of them?
My dear ole dad pretty much abandoned my younger brother and sister and my mother and me when I was 10 years old. He played no role in my life except to provide a constant reminder that my early years were not going to be easy ones. The image that sticks out in my mind is one that painfully sums up my father’s inadequacies as a parent and good provider. I was around 11 years old and as skinny as a pencil. I opened the refrigerator looking for something to fill my always-empty stomach. There on the top shelf, all by itself was a half-filled bottle of ketchup. No milk. No bread. No leftovers. Nothing but that pathetic bottle of ketchup.
As I think about those difficult years I can’t help but wonder if I’d be the man I am today if my life had taken an easier path. They say that pain and suffering and deprivation build character. So maybe the fact that I was and am a pretty good dad and granddad, that I try to be a good husband, that I pay my taxes and don’t steal pencils from the supply cabinet at work could all be credited to those trying years. What might be the measure of my character if I had been raised in a stable, affluent household? This question can only be answered on judgment day.