My grandfather was dead when I was born in 1959, but he’d left a trail of memories. And, from those memories came stores that suggested that had badly damaged the man I loved. His way of being had started a catastrophic avalanche of mental illness in the family.   At least, that was my impression for years.

At the age of seven my dad’s depression had entered our relationship. I felt a childish desperation in my need to make him happy. There was some point where our handholding went from careless familiarity to gripping desperation.

I knew he had lost the fight when my mother left. I learned later that she had found an axe hidden in the bedroom closet. On the day we moved, I remember vividly seeing his face at the window. One part of me wanted to stay with him; the other was frightened and wanted to run. His depression led to many accidents; one of them made him a quadriplegic. I watched as he died.

I stumbled through my teens battering myself with bad choices. As my critical abilities grew, the childhood whispers grew to conversations; I learned about my grandfather. I heard stories of strict parental behavior that bordered on abuse. It seemed he ruled wife and children with an iron fist. The stories helped me understand the series of events that led to the shrunken skeleton of my father propped up in the coffin.

One story stuck in my head. My father loved motorcycles. One day, he took my cousin Audrey for a ride to visit his parents. My grandfather rejected her blackness and my father confronted his racism. I became aware of the complicated and confused identity issues in my family. My grandfather had objected to my father’s choice of wife for her color, and, for that, they were married without his blessing and attendance.

In the late 90s, I decided to learn about my family history. In an interview with my cousin, I learned that my grandmother had been institutionalized for twelve years. But, what stunned me is that my grandfather had her meals privately made and delivered daily. As much as I wanted to hold on to my grotesque opinion of him this information caused something to shift.

Coming on the heels of this information, I learned that on trips to New York with his wife he never left her side. My aunt said that he gave her money to buy whatever she wanted. By this time, of course, after more than one of my own complicated love affairs, I had become conscious of the nuances of love. I sat back to reflect on my own visceral dislike of the man. And, I continued to explore the family tree.

One year, on my way to Barbados my cousin asked me to visit the archives to look for my grandmother’s birth certificate. Online, I found a copy of my father and my grandfather’s signature on a ship from England to New York. A long trip suggested more than a troubled relationship. But the shocker was a copy of a certificate that showed that my grandfather, on a trip with my grandmother, had been baptized so that he could marry my grandmother in a Christian ceremony.

I had to readjust. I had to open my mind to his realities. The British had practiced divisive policies that pitted blacks against Indians. He had used his ancestry as an indentured servant to start and successfully manage his own business. He lost one Indian wife and child in his early years; he had supported all of his children and given them an education that took them into the best jobs.

This was a strong man who, once committed to my grandmother, stayed with her for better or for worse. He loved her. And, his love for my father, motivated his need to push him toward what he thought would make him succeed. This I grew to accept.


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