This past year has been a journey into the many faces of trauma through books and online classes. It has taught me that we are all traumatized by our upbringing in some way. No one is unscathed by harsh words, unmet needs, or difficult experiences. We all have them. The interesting part to me is that we learn to deal with life’s hardships based on behaviors passed through the generations. The events may have been long forgotten, but the acceptable way to deal with tragedy is learned from our parents and extended family. No judgment or right/wrong implications, just an awareness that what we believe about ourselves goes far beyond what we know and remember and still it ripples through time.
I believe part of intergenerational healing is to recognize and acknowledge these past events and those ancestors who suffered because of them. Through no fault of their own, life happened, people coped as best they knew how, and family “norms” were established. But without some awareness, we keep passing on the suffering. This is the story of my paternal Grandpa, born on Christmas day in 1897 – 125 years ago. I suppose a nice number to remember and honor him.
My Grandpa’s name was Everett and he was NOT a big fan of Christmas. Grandma always just told us it was because he shared his birthday with Christmas day and he felt like he got cheated. He would say he got a present for Christmas and a spank for his birthday (glad that tradition of friendly swats on your bday has fallen by the wayside!). He went through the holiday rituals of Mass, a large meal, and opening presents but I don’t remember his really enjoying any of it. Seemed like he just endured it. I never really understood it until I explored my family tree in therapy and on ancestry.com. Only then did the gravity of his birthday come to light.
Grandpa was the eldest son of Mike and Coreena (Cora). They were wed in February 1897 when Mike was 23 and Cora was 20. Like good mid-western, farming families of Irish Catholic descent, Grandpa was born 10 months later on Christmas Day. What a wonderful holiday gift to the young couple! Although I am sure the circumstances in rural Illinois meant a home birth with cold, wintry weather outside. As best we can tell, the young couple was happy and making their way in the world. Their families lived in neighboring towns and they were active in their community. As the 1900s were ushered in, the young couple welcomed a daughter Pearl in the spring. The next year another son William was born on December 20th.
But the birth was complicated. There are few details, but we know Cora died on December 24th just 4 days after giving birth. Young Mike sent word for his mother to come and help. She was unable to leave as her own husband Michael Sr was near death as well. He died later that day. My great-grandfather lost his beautiful young wife and his beloved father on the same day. The next day my Grandpa turned four. His Christmas birthday. Even at that young age, science now tells us that grief and loss were imprinted on his young body and mind. No wonder Dec 25 was a painful day even if he didn’t explicitly remember why.
The decision was made that Mike’s sisters would help with the new infant “Bill” and young Pearl on the farm, but that Everett would be sent to stay with Cora’s mother nearby. On that day, my Grandpa lost his Dad, his Mom, his Grandpa, and life as he had known it. He remained with his Grandmother until he was 12 or so – old enough to help work on the farm.
I think about all the losses in that short period of time, a wife and a father, a mother, and the connection to his family. On some level, he wasn’t wanted back until he could be of use as a farmhand, yet his siblings remained with their Dad. Family trauma research tells us that it is not “what” happens to us, but how we respond that causes the lasting effects on our personality. Our Irish Catholic heritage was one of toughness and strength in the face of adversity. No place for tears, pity, or emotions. It was moving forward, being strong, and dealing with what life tossed your way. Hardship and loss were normal and you just stuffed your emotions – for better or worse.
But the impact was there. Mike never married again, but apparently had a “friend” for the rest of his life. My grandpa seemed to have lost enthusiasm for life. He found comfort in hard work, and tight control of money and those around him. He may have even been considered a ladies man in his early adult life. But he lived up to his Catholic expectations and married a sweet lady named Marie (my Grandma) but even at my young age, I never really felt much tenderness between them.
There is another bit of irony and tragedy in the family tree. My grandfather named his firstborn son, my Dad, “William” after his little brother. Again, no family story to support this, but several family therapy experts have told me there would have been deep (and likely unprocessed) resentment toward his younger brother. Little Bill’s arrival took away his mother, banished him from the family household, and coincidentally lost his Grandpa. To name his oldest son William also cast some unrest or deep emotions onto my Dad.
Being the eldest son, my Dad had obligations to help on the farm and my grandfather ruled with an iron fist. Even after my Dad spent time in the Korean war and married my Mom, his reach and his expectations were firm. Also worth mentioning is that Everett’s first child was a daughter that he adored who married and moved away. And their third child was another boy who was visually impaired although my Grandpa never acknowledged this. My Grandma had to read all his schoolwork to him and help with his lessons. Grandpa made the world the way he needed it to be.
My Mom always thought Granpa was a bit envious of his younger brother who seemed unscathed by the circumstances of his birth and was more jovial and social. But overall, Grandpa and Grandma were just who they were. It wasn’t a time to explore feelings, behaviors, or suffering. We just marched along. For me as a young girl, I didn’t know any different, this was how our family worked. This distance was normal.
But the fates weren’t finished and this is where my part of the story plays out. Grandpa suffered great and real loss as a child, yet he made his way in the world by raising three children and being an established farmer in the community. It isn’t a hard stretch to say that he was proud of my Dad, who married, had seven children, a flourishing farm, and was very active in the church, the Knights of Columbus, and local farming groups. He was successful, well-liked, and a fun person. His laugh was memorable. He had the joy, my Grandpa didn’t. . He carried our family name well. But once again, Grandpa (and all of us) lost something dear. My Dad died at the age of 49 and it was tragic for everyone.
Yet we did what the generations before us did. We were strong. We held in the tears. We had Mass. We proceeded to the same cemetery where Cora and Mike were buried. We acted fine when we were not. We didn’t ask for help. At age 13 I tried not to cry at the funeral. Tried to be strong. Tried to be what the world needed and wanted. I did what I saw my family doing. The legacy was passed down. This was my basis for dealing with the loss of my father and dealing with diabetes. Hardship and loss were normal – remember?
My studies of family trauma reveal that this sort of tragedy ripples through the generations. Not in intentional or obvious ways, but by what we think is “the right way” to do these things. It gets passed down. We do what our parents teach us is right. Again, no blame, everyone does (and did) the best they can, but unfortunately for my family, there seemed to be a lack of compassion and acknowledgment of suffering which is the genesis of this story.
So 125 years after his birth, I want to weep and mourn the loss of his mother Cora, and his grandfather Michael. To acknowledge the incredible hardship of the family on the day before my Grandpa’s 4th birthday. For young Mike who never recovered his ability to love. For Everett who likely felt unlovable and not enough on some level. Also for Everett who outlived both his son and his brother William. For Grandma who made up and tolerated the harshness and lack of affection. For Uncle Eddie who was amazing despite his visual impairment. For my Dad who was gone too soon. For my Mom who suffered greatly when my Dad died and she was snubbed by my Grandpa. And for me who was taught not to cry and that hardship is normal.
It’s not. It is traumatic in every sense of the word. It hurts. It is worthy of tears, and hugs and sadness. There is no honor in acting like loss doesn’t hurt. So today I weep for all the tears that weren’t allowed.
And 125 years after your birthday Grandpa, I want to acknowledge to you and all my family, how unfair it all was, how sad it was, how tragic it was. It wasn’t your fault. You did nothing wrong. No one did. I offer these tears as a way to heal and to honor you and to celebrate you on your Birthday!
You deserve celebrating and we all deserve peace and love and healing across the millennium and the generations.
Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas!
PS – For any errors in family history, I apologize. This was the truth as I could discern it. To any of my family who still feels we should suffer in silence, I apologize but offer you wishes of peace. It is a story worth telling and pain worth healing. Likely one of many.
Thank you for sharing, Patricia. Indeed trauma does get passed down. May your holidays be free of that sort of thing and may you find peace and happiness in the coming year.
Thanks Don! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you! Cheers to peace and prosperity in the coming year!