At some point in grade school. I don't remember which grade, we were given the homework assignment of making a family tree The teacher drew a simple stick figure on the chalkboard to represent us the student and from there lines forming the branches pointing to a mother on one side and a father on the the other at angles. "After you put in your parents, he explained then two lines from each for your grandparents. Go back as far as you can but don't use more than two sheets of paper. Next to each figure put the persons name" and he wrote the word name forming a list off to the side. "Birth date" and he scratched that under the word name, "and deceased date". As he was adding this to the list I wondered why it wasn't called Death Date since it was sort of the opposite of Birth Date. I didn't ask though. I had learned by that time that that contrary to the popular cliche "there are no stupid questions" there were questions that will make people think you're crazy or odd or worth picking on. I was learning to filter thoughts that wanted to pop out of my mouth. At least some of the time.
"If you have room off to the side you can put something interesting if you like. Military service, professions or accomplishments. You can paste pictures and decorate them. We're going to hang them on the wall for the parent teacher conference." I must have been in a brooding mood because I remember thinking I was going to be able to save a lot of space under that interesting section.
"What if you aint got a dad?" asked Tommy Blond Hair.
"Everyone has a dad" Someone behind me blurted out.
"Not Jesus" said Tina whose father was a Baptist minister. I've reconnected with Tina recently and despite her upbringing or maybe because of it she's a card carrying atheist selling what she calls "love helpers" at parties not unlike the ones hosted by Tupperware saleswomen.
"God was Jesuses dad" another voice said. The class was sinking into pandemonium and I really love pandemonium but before I could yell "Can we put God in the place of dad if we don't know who our father is?" our teacher regained control.
"If you want you can put a stepfather or stepmother here" and he pointed to the parent part. "whoever you consider your family." He was trying to appease us and maybe avoid being politically incorrect but in truth he just made things a little difficult for some of us and a lot more difficult for me. It was due in a week.
When I sat down to do this assignment it was my full expectation to finish in an hour and then go on with life. I rarely needed the full time alloted to do any given piece of homework so I intended to start right after Leave it to Beaver and finish before Charlie's Angels.
I drew a stick figure that was to be me and the two angled lines for parents. Here was the first snag. I had only recently learned that the man that had been married to my mother for as long as I could remember was not really my father. There was no purposeful deception involved on their part it just never came up and I guess it never occurred to me that people in a family should all have the same last name so I never asked.
I put a stick figure to represent my mother first since that seemed the easiest. Name: Mary Rene ... but what last name? Her name wasn't the same as mine so I couldn't put her next to my biological father could I? Fine. I'll put all of her names. I was annoyed that this was now going to take longer than I expected and I felt I was giving myself more work. Name: Mary Rene Holmes-Berger-Williams. There. It was long but it was precise. Birthday: December 22, 1950. Deceased:... The teacher hadn't said what to put if the person was still alive so I wrote "Not dead yet".
I didn't know much about my biological father so after some thought I put a stick figure to denote my stepfather. Name: JD Williams. At least the men had shorter names. Born: August 16.. "Mom! when is dads date of birth?" I yelled loud enough she could hear from anywhere in the house. I had always referred to him as my dad or father since I didn't know any better and was never corrected.
"August 16" a disembodied voice yelled back. "No I mean what year", "1947" Hmmm.. that made him 30. No wonder he has gray hair I thought. Of course he had always had gray hair except for the Summer he spent looking for a job and he dyed it a shiny black to keep from being rejected for his assumed age.
Deceased: Not dead yet.
From my mothers stick figure I drew two angled lines to represent my maternal grandparents. We called our grandmother Grandma Imogene which was her first name since by the time I was in fifth grade her last name had already changed twice. The family had decided it was just too confusing for the kids to keep changing what we called her. Name: Imogene.. another snag. I didn't know her maiden name and I couldn't remember her second husbands last name even though I was a ring bearer in the wedding.
She was still married to husband number three at the time but he was an abusive alcoholic. I had vague memories of late night calls and my mother and stepfather going to rescue her. I never knew if she was physically abused but after several of these rescues my grandmother was given an ultimatum by her children. He goes or we do. She chose her husband. Twice as it turned out. She did eventually divorce him and then married him again later.
My mother had a sister and two brothers. They formed a united front against my grandmother and affected a freeze out. No contact with her children or grand children until she came to her senses. Being the oldest and the favorite I think it was hardest on me. My father and grandfather both died the same year and my pregnant newly widowed mother and I moved in with my newly widowed grandmother. I was the oldest and at that point the only grandchild and I started calling my mother Mary and my grandmother Mom. We didn't live there long. Both women were remarried within the year.
The freeze out lasted about five or six years which is an eternity for anyone under twenty. My uncles folded first. The youngest one only ten years older than me was in trouble too much not to have some financial back up for bail money. His youngest daughter was getting more face time and replaced me as favorite. I would have to remember this lesson later in case I go into politics or seek popularity. Out of face out of mind.
Next to lose solidarity was my other uncle. He's a pathological liar and has a very odd detachment in his relationships. I can't be positive but I'm willing to bet his motivation wasn't to regain his relationship with his mother but to regain the appearance of a big happy family. He and the rest of the family had been on shaky ground since the death of his father. The day my grandfather died he broke into his own parents house and stole various mementos and artifacts from his childhood that he felt he deserved to inherit but was afraid wouldn't. Then he sold them.
This left my mother and my aunt Margerite as the last hold outs. I don't know which lasted longer but they turned on each other so they both ended up with two fronts of a family freeze out. Their falling out happened because my father bought us a cabin at the Lake of the Ozarks. I didn't know it at the time but my Uncle Dan, Margerites husband and my stepfather were in a financial arms race. When we got a new truck, they got a newer bigger truck. I don't know much about trucks but I knew my cousins had a bigger truck because they made sure to point it out to us. Possibly at their fathers instruction.
When my stepfather brought home a pop up Apache camper Dan brought home a fifth wheel trailer camper that didn't need to be folded up. When we bought a house at the lake Dan called child protective services. I guess he couldn't compete but would get even somehow.
We were in school when they came. I only found out when the neighbors asked me why a man and a women in suits came to the house. They went through our closets to make sure we had clothes and checked the refrigerator to make sure we had food. They counted our shoes and checked my mothers check book to see where her money was going. Of course they felt violated and insulted and the law was laid down we weren't to speak to our aunt, uncle or cousins about anything.
After a few years of isolation some decision was made to reunite the family even though my grandmothers husband number three was still in the picture. It was a weird time being reintroduced to my grandmother and her husband. They came over one evening in the winter and to grease the wheels a bit they brought two paper grocery bags completely full of candy. Leftovers from an event they had promoted that week. It worked.
"Mom! what is Grandma Imogenes maiden name?"
"Snowbird or just Snow." came the reply.
"What's her date of birth?" I bellowed again but instead of yelling back my mother came to my bedroom door. "Why do you want to know?" She saw my family tree at about the same moment. "It's for my homework. I have to do a family tree"
"Let's see, she was 16 when Marggie was born" She calculated in her head " 1929, January 27th,1929."
So I wrote Name: Imogene Snowbird-Holmes-Arnold-Eisen. Date of Birth: January 27, 1927. Deceased: Not dead yet.
But she's dead now. If I had the family tree in front of me I could amend the entry to read. Name: Imogene Snow-Holmes-Arnold-Eisen-Eisen-Martin. Birth: January 27, 1927. Deceased November 19, 2009.
For the assignment I realized I finally had something to write under interesting facts. I wrote "Owned the Tastee Freez". The Tastee Freez at the time made up 20% of all the restaurants town. This was as good as being a celebrity. I must not have been the only person to find that interesting because that fact was also mentioned in her obituary after the list of her surviving relatives.
When I was younger my mother would sometimes work at the Tastee Freez and we would spend her entire shift there. We would start sitting quietly at a table with a coloring book or reading but eventually the massive amounts of sugar and caffeine from the sodas we drank would take it's toll and we would end up running around like insanely hyper children. We drank so much soda because it was the only thing we could get on our own without asking permission and we took full advantage.
For some reason it was great fun for us to go behind the counter to make our own drinks. and even more fun to play mixologist. Is your Coke not Spritey enough? Or maybe your Root Beer would taste more like Dr Pepper if you just added a little bit of orange crush. Of course the ultimate expression of the fountain culinary experience was the Suicide. Recipe was easy. You put a little of each soda in your cup all the way down the line then repeat until your cup was full.
".. and Dad" my mother continued "was born September 14, 1919 and he died December 23rd, 1969" Next to my grandmother I drew another stick figure and wrote down the dates. Wow my first dead relative. I only knew of two pictures of my grandfather. One was him in uniform for the army and the other he was holding me on the Easter before he died. My two year old self posing behind a wagon that had been filled with candy. The photo was in black and white and I would see that picture and wonder more about what kind of candy it was instead of the man holding me.
I've only heard a few stories about my mothers father but they were good ones and always told with love. Once he had to wake up the entire household to help him find the shoes he wore to work. Because he was already late and his carpool was waiting on him he gave up and borrowed a pair of shoes two sizes too small for him from his oldest son. After squeezing into my uncles shoes he went to the refrigerator to grab his lunch and there on the second shelf where his lunchbox was normally kept were his shoes.
I never got a good explanation as to how shoes could end up in the refrigerator but that wasn't supposed to be the point of the story. The marriages after my grandfather died weren't the bliss my grandma Imogene has experienced with him. She got lucky on the first try and then she found herself looking again. Marriages two, three and four were rocky but marriage five found her happy again.
Imogene met husband number Five at church. Or more precisely re-met him. She had known him in their younger days. His name is Bob and he used to work with my grandfather years before. He was even in the carpool in the now famous Shoes in the Fridge story. The whole family liked him instantly and my grandmother was warned that if she divorces this one then we my just go with him in the custody battle.
Bob wasn't included on my family tree assignment of course but if he had been I would have something great to put next to his stick figure as interesting. Bob would regularly take phone calls to talk to men about erectile dysfunction. He wasn't a Dr. he was a happy patient whose name and number was given to potential patients to call for a reference.
The best part about these calls is that they would come to his cell phone and he would take them and have the discussion regardless of who was around.
"Oh sure I can talk to you"
"Well you see you put your penis in a pump and that pulls the blood in and then you just slip the rubber band around the base to keep it up"
"Well you put some petroleum jelly like vaseline on it so it slides better, yeah"
"For as long as you want. You won't really climax but you can do this whenever you want without pills"
"I haven't had any problems at all"
"Ok, you're welcome"
I have never seen or done this procedure but I did tie a string around my finger once really tight and it made my finger swell up and turn purple. Could it really be that different?
I found this hysterical as long as I didn't think too hard about his artificially inflated penis going after my seventy five year old grandmother.