George and Felix

I recently did a DNA test with Ancestry.com to determine our heritage. I was a bit disappointed with the results. There was nothing new I hadn’t known already. It basically confirmed that we are, basically, descended from a long line of Southern white trash families. The only exception is the marriage of Dad with Mom, but her lineage didn’t show up too much in the DNA result. I was disappointed with that.

One thing in our family’s history, that won’t show up in a DNA report, occurred to me this morning in meditation. Both of my grandfathers were, um, flawed individuals.

George apparently was an embezzler, his first child was born sooner than nine months after his marriage to Margaret Henks, and he was divorced from her while he was in prison. Not exactly a point of pride for his family who sort of banished him to Duluth once he got out of Stillwater. True to character, he eloped with his boss’s daughter (my grandmother Mary) to Chicago. He was a scoundrel, he was.

Felix was, according to his daughter Betty, severely mentally ill and an alcoholic. He was so violent at times that he once broke Grandma Lucy’s arm. He spent time at St. Luke’s and, perhaps, at the State Mental Hospital at 24th Street and Van Buren. Dad became almost berserk with anger when I asked him about Felix. Did they do electric shock treatment on Felix? My last memories of him he seemed to be just a shell of a man, always lost in his thoughts. He and Lucy moved ten times during the ten years they were in Prescott. He tried to build a house on the front lot of their place on Sherman. But he never could quite complete it. In the times that he would stay with us on Luke, he would be out raking leaves.  He would interact with us kids intermittently. When he would walk with us to town in Prescott, I think it was out duty to keep an eye on him. The pictures I have of him, he stares at the camera. I don’t recall ever seeing him smile or laugh.

From these two men, came a woman who was a perfectionist and a religious saint. A man came who was driven to excel, a perfectionist seeking to overcome a hidden demon of shame and poverty. They both buried secrets of their past to the point that mom couldn’t recall anything of her father and dad became apocalyptic when asked about his father. His relation with his mother was pretty strained to, so much so that he was led to place her in a small residential home in her last years because she was so unhappy and mean to both mom and dad.

Is it any wonder that we struggle with alcoholism, or regard mental illness as a shameful stigma? Our religious righteousness comes directly from our parents’ fierce determination to scratch dirt over our uneven, erratic pasts and to stand firm in the surety of being right with a rigid god. I’m sure they regard me, gay catholic priest who is HIV+ has a real trial. That they love and accept me as they do is a testament to a family bond that, somehow, transcends religious righteousness.

What if I bring Ash home? There will be a lot of rolling over in graves when that happens.

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