Uncle Woody’s Yearbooks

My 85 year-old Grandmother is moving. After 60 years in and around her beloved Portland, Maine, she is moving down to Massachusetts next month to be closer to immediate family, and particularly, her great granddaughter. The moving process has been slow and methodical, with larger items being divided among family members and the lion’s share being donated or thrown out. Her three sons have made their final pilgrimages to the homestead to collect their few remaining personal items, i.e. one gratuitously patched and tremendously over-loved teddy bear, “Baby Huggy,” and to stake claim to desired functional pieces of furniture by affixing them with different colored tapes that correspond to specific brothers. My main function has been carting many vanfulls of items to the local Goodwill. I have been up twice now, and each time managed at least three full loads to the donation center. As the cargo decreases, along with my grandmother’s strength and desire to sort through the rubble of the basement treasures, things begin to get older and more significant – published books by her father, my grandfather’s State of Maine tennis championship trophy’s from the thirties, a copy of Little Women that was her mother’s (that looks like it could have been a first edition by its dismantled state), yearbooks from her husband’s high school, college, and law school days, and finally, a small lonely stack of yearbooks belonging to Uncle Woody.

There were four sons and now there are three. When I was one year old, Uncle Woody, at the age of 30, after a life-long battle with depression, took his own life. I never knew the man nor would I see the immediate effects of his death on the surrounding family. Little was recounted to me of his life other than that he was remembered as quite a troubled man. Malicious and sadistic, sad and drug addicted, Uncle Woody seems to have left little legacy other than frustration and a lingering sense of inevitability. Despite such a struggle within himself and those he caused for others, by the time I was aware of his story, questions about him were deemed morbid curiosity and red flags of dormant suicidal tendencies beginning to bud. In actuality, it was the fact that Woody was all but erased from the family’s storyline that always seemed the most perplexing to me.

I believe that Uncle Woody was closest to my father, although such a relationship seemed to be arms-length at best. As with anything to a child, the further you hide it, the more intriguing it becomes. My inquiries about Uncle Woody’s life, loves, hobbies, struggles, experiences were often met with short, deferred answers and always (as mentioned above) with a strange smoke that blurred the distinction between my father’s pain or his fears that such an illness would be repeated in me. I have settled on a combination of the two that yields a third product, which is that talking about such matters may stoke a small ember in my brain that could eventually turn into a conflagration before I snuff it, myself, out. As not to cause my father any undue pain than that already suffered, and just as importantly, to prevent myself from being institutionalized, I let my thoughts of Uncle Woody ebb over the years.

My grandmother has a fascinatingly pragmatic disposition towards memories and sentimentality. Often incongruous to the love that she shows me (usually through delicious baking), my grandmother can be overly unsympathetic when talking about past memories or people. She will speak fondly and recount stories accurately and humorously, but does not dwell on loss or sadness for even a moment. Perhaps it’s Wilde’s, “Wisdom comes with winters,” and with the wisdom we try to shake the chill by forgetting the path it took to find us. Or perhaps it is just her personality, which can be brutally frank to the unintended result of insult or ridiculousness. Such a personality trait, which is often times unleashed on yours truly, does come from a caring place and is also amplified by a heightened state of matriarchy, being the mother of four boys and having been a middle school teacher for over 30 years. I am quick to see the loving origin of her enwisened barbs, and quicker to give it right back. We enjoy this good-natured sparring, where I listen and understand to what she is saying, but will often never do it. Most other folks are less tolerant or take it too personally, where I find it a humorous and entertaining way to talk about things that we care about, but I realize that I am in the privileged position of being her grandson.

The most frequent piece of advice I receive from my Grandmother is to stop dwelling so much on the past. I wondered at times if she used this method to avoid coping with pain, or if there was just too much to hold onto as the years continue. Being stubborn and emotional, I would spill my regrets in hopes of her seeing that my position was credible and real, and while she would acknowledge my struggles and feelings, she would offer the same words of suggestion – to stop drudging up past pains, as they are done and can not be resolved. She keeps a Family Circus cartoon on her refrigerator, a serial that I find shockingly aggravating in its optimism, and it involves one older child explaining to the younger, “The past is gone, the future has hadn’t happened yet, but today is a gift and that is why they call it PRESENT.” This cartoon sums up my grandmother’s disposition, one that is achieved over many years of life and a liberal helping of her own spit and fire.

Coming to fully understand her pattern of thought and the increasingly personal conversations we have had, I was not afraid to let Uncle Woody enter our conversations if it occurred naturally. While visiting my grandmother a few months ago, I had a dream that my beloved cat Rita had come back to me. Despite all the strangeness of the dream, very real and pure, my Rita entered the room and came to me. She was confused and scared and happy, and I felt the same way. I was so shocked and overwhelmed to see her again, that although something was telling me that this can not be real, I was resolved to enjoy it for those few moments. She seemed real, a disembodied spirit wandering through shadows trying to find her way to me and ultimately to the next phase of her existence. I was so sad that she was taking this journey alone and yet so happy to have those fleeting, possibly fabricated, moments together. I chose to take such an improbability as a reality that I alone hold. When I awoke, the feelings of sadness and concern still lingered. As my worries  began to fade, I found myself overcome with grief.

That morning at breakfast I shared the story of my dream with my grandmother. I knew that this would inevitably lead to another conversation about not becoming mired in the past, which it did, but then she shared something with me that was so touching in her openness. She told me of a dream she had some years after Uncle Woody’s death where she pleaded with him not to kill himself. She said it was the only dream she ever had about him and agreed with me on how real such a thing can feel and how sad and helpless we feel when we awake. He was a sick man, and she expressed regret that such effective anti-depressants that could have possibly helped him were not yet invented. She cursed the drugs he took to self-medicate and blamed them for the eventual, irretrievable depths he fell to. All of these exposed grievances were completely new to me. I had never before heard my grandmother speak about his final days nor express sadness and regret. Her retelling of the dream and the emotions it stoked were quickly concluded in that she let the irretrievable go and would not let her mind retrace those dark paths. Despite this one dream, she remains open and honest about his life and her silence on such matters are ultimately because she feels there is not much left to talk about.

Upon my final sift through the basement, culminating in a trip to the recycling plant, she told me to include all of the yearbooks in this journey. As she napped upstairs while I loaded the car, I began to inspect these books. The first four or five I opened were clear to me that someone would want as they belonged to my grandfather, and if nothing else, my father has a spot in his library for just such old books and heirlooms. I believed the inclusion of these books in the disposal pile was to be a mistake, although it would also be of my grandmother’s thinking to assume that no one would want them and what exactly is the point of keeping such things, anyways? It is this pragmatic, unsentimental thinking that most likely informed the decision to included the remaining two yearbooks, which belonged to my Uncle Woody.

Uncle Woody left no family, and it appears that even if he were to, they might not be so interested in hanging onto his memory. Merely holding these yearbooks in my hands flooded me with questions about what is in a life? We collect yearbooks and trophies and pictures to create a timeline of our existence and remind us of our experiences, but what if that life is cut short or what if the memory of that life is not deemed worthy of remaining kindled? Such things as yearbooks may best be thrown away in time, as they only now serve to remind us of a life that was in pain and caused pain. I knew that my grandmother would not dwell long on the decision to send these things to be recycled and perhaps put their materials to a more positive purpose, yet such a moment to be involved in was very sad to me.

I opened his senior year high school yearbook. It was exactly how it should look, filled with what seemed like hundreds of notes recounting special times or funny anecdotes. Each message was personal, light-hearted and well crafted, not one, “Have a great summer.” Some were in the exaggerated, suggestive cursive of young women, others in the dark scrawl of testosterone-fueled young men. I wondered for a moment if any of his reciprocated signings were morbid or weird or inappropriate, but it seemed like he really did have friends, or if nothing else, people who knew who he was and were not afraid to take a moment to share a memory.

His senior picture was one that I had seen on my grandmother’s piano for years. This picture always served to further pique my interest, as out of three brothers with dark, thick, curly hair and rather Russian features from the paternal side, Uncle Woody was cut more from my grandmother’s parents with remarkably German attributes – straight blond hair, clear blue eyes and a tall, muscular build. He was an extremely handsome man and it seems a deeply unfortunate juxtaposition to be so mentally ill and difficult to be around. Again like my sweet Rita, physically beautiful yet mentally flawed, it seems less a cruel joke than a reminder that all of us have our blessings and curses that we have no control over. In addition to this striking photo, his small, accompanying paragraph had a dash of humor as he described himself as “excelling at babysitting.” He was a swimmer, a violinist and an eagle scout. He went on to go to the same college that my grandfather, father and later myself did, although he was forced to room with my father (a junior at that point) because no one would room with him on account of his strangeness.

My grandmother awoke to find me going down the rabbit hole of memories, stories and questions and remarked that she thought that would happen and bid me to come upstairs with the books so we could go and be rid of them. I told her that my father would want my grandfather’s and kept them there and made no mention of the other two that I brought up. We spoke casually on the ride to the plant, all the while the questions of Uncle Woody’s yearbooks, of what memories we choose to keep, of the point of holding onto to something from someone that I never knew, and of my own life’s story, were building like a growing white noise. When we arrived at the plant, I disposed of what I knew would go and when it came down to the yearbooks I could not bring myself to extinguish this person yet in this particular way. I told my grandmother that I did not know why, but I did not feel that it was right to discard these personal items. I had not resolved within myself what I should do with these books or why exactly I was so saddened to let them go, but simply stated that I will hold onto to them for a little while longer. Thankfully, my grandmother did not question me nor resist and we did not ever speak about it.

I know that no one in the family wants or sees the point in these yearbooks. With no malice towards their fallen brother, there just comes a point when such things are merely taking up space as they get shuffled from one place to another, one generation to another, until the line which binds them is so thin it breaks and such things disappear naturally. Uncle Woody did not disappear naturally, nor did he appear naturally, one could say, but he was of my blood and close to my father and I was never able to judge the man for myself. I know that my story will not have such a sad existence as his, for the stories told at this point, however few, do not paint the picture of a particularly good person. But he tried for 30 years to live with something beyond his control, and although he lost and it may have been the peace he was always looking for, I like to hold a slightly more sympathetic picture of the man. Like the messages in his yearbook, whether people really felt that way or not, others can, and often do, create our life stories. I will hold onto his yearbooks for a little while longer and think of him as a man who tried under insurmountable odds to be a normal guy, and for a few pages in his high school yearbook, was.

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