“All I remember were the death threats,” Mom said over the phone. The threats arrived in the mail and by phone at all times of the day. My parents had been divorced for more than 35 years. I could tell that Mom did not really want to talk about it. She had moved on. She was now in a good marriage and had a good life.
Still, I pressed and waited. The phone hummed without response.
“We were in the kitchen when the phone rang,” she finally said. “Your grandmother answered. She listened quietly and then hung up. She said someone just told her she would die.”
Mom hated to talk about the past.
I emailed my father’s second wife, Kati. By the time I had had lunch with Dad in 2007, he had been married four times. His second wife was the only one I was close to.
She wrote back: “I only remember your father and grandmother mentioning that he had shot someone who had been breaking into the cash box at the laundromat that they owned. Then when Joe was in the hospital sometime later for something rather minor, he died suddenly. Your grandmother then discovered that the charge nurse on Joe's floor was the sister of the man he had shot. They concluded that he had been murdered, but did nothing about it. Kind of strange.
“That is all I remember. You father always said that his father was a mean-spirited man and that your grandmother only blossomed after he died (seems to me he drank...). No one seemed to regard his passing as a great loss.
“But we historians know that just like revisionist history is a fact of life in larger issues, it also true of family histories! Don't tell me now they are going to make a hero of him!” Kati is an Eastern European history and economics scholar. She spends half her time in Budapest and half in California and is publisher of an academic press based in Hungary.
Sometimes understanding history is like reading tea leaves. I called Mom and Kati first because they are outsiders, and I know, mostly from intuition, that Dad and everyone else on his side of the family are not necessarily reliable sources. I remember Dad telling me how wonderful Grandfather Joe was. I knew he was lying or he had conveniently forgotten. Dad viewed the past in ways that ignored difficulties and reflected well on him. It’s not surprising when I consider where he started and where he ended up, growing up in a shack without electricity and sleeping in a bed with his two brothers to getting a graduate degree in business from Harvard and reaching the heights of the retail business. He remembered nothing that would be inconvenient to his privileged ascent.
Often that meant Susan and I were not meant to be part of the picture.
When we met for lunch in Nasheville, things had shifted. Dad had been retired for almost a decade. He would have been essentially destitute if he hadn’t married his fourth wife. Beth and Dad went to high school together at the segregated white Bryers High School in Covington. When they reconnected at their 50th high school reunion, they struck up a friendship and eventually married. This was fortunate for Dad because he had not prepared for retirement. He burned through every penny he made the moment it hit his pocket.
What drew me to Dad’s story was just how out of character it was for him to tell me something like this. He knew I was a writer. He must have known I would pursue this. Perhaps, it was his opening gambit to getting me back in his life. Maybe. Perhaps, he wanted to find out what happened. Maybe. It’s impossible to tell. Dad’s a cypher. Like many people I’ve known over the years who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II that hardship scared their psyche. The experience was so painful that they learned to always look ahead. Introspection and rumination were to toxic allow. Dad didn't wallow.
Looking back. That’s what I do. As a card-carrying member of the Boomer generation, I am mired in the swamps of the past. I write books about the past. Books about tragedy, injustice, plunder, and redemption. But my gaze is not nostalgic. I'm not looking for a past that is better than now. I'm looking for a truth about the past that will heal me. I haven't been able to speak about this for decades except in incomprehensible spits and stutters.
Now, for some reason I am ready. Perhaps it has to do with after so much loss...a marriage...a daughter who won't speak to me...mental illness...I have emerged from a dark tunnel and I am finally in the light and ready to describe what I see.
After speaking with Mom and Kati, I wondered what this story would be. If this woman had actually killed Grandfather Joe, I’d want to bake her a cake or do something for her. She deserved a prize for her act of courage. I knew in my heart that Grandfather Joe was an evil man, even though it would be later when I would learn just how evil.
If she didn’t kill him, then the story Dad told me speaks to the depths of sickness that pollutes our family and our memories and perhaps the entirety of white culture in the South. The story speaks to just how far bigots can go to deny agency and through a kind of racist ju-jitsu turn the victimizer into the victimized.