The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember the story my father told of his own father’s funeral.
This is a man I never met.
Along with my grandmother and great uncles, he grew up in orphanages in New York City.
Back in the day when “poor orphans” were good for indentured labor and not much else.
Especially not at all an option was adding such children to a family of better “stock”.
This aspect I think most marked his and my father’s lives, in that they both aspired to belong to a class above them.
Just like me.
Both attempted to establish “place” in a “New World”.
Just like me.
Due to the vagaries of transience, they are mostly all buried rather anonymously in cemeteries far-flung from any place having to do with any aspect of their mortal existence.
I would not know where to look for them if I wanted to.
This saddens me in a rather vague way.
On this next point I cannot speak for my grandfather.
I do know that my father would often wax nostalgic.
I also know that many will dismiss this series of musings as an exercise in nostalgia.
When what I am attempting to do is speak of the loss of community and place.
Community which my father and grandfather had in spades, and denied.
Just like me.
We might call this: “The Immigrant Experience”.
Like me, no immigrant is truly “willing” as concerns her dispossession.
But this is a whole other discussion.
The entire system we find ourselves in is based on the notion of ownership of property.
Property which, we should be clear, is never really “own-able”.
It is, on the other hand, steal-able, transferable, eminent domain–able, foreclose-able, repossess-able, and lien-able.
And we, are nothing if not displaceable; literally replaceable.
This is strangely celebrated, culturally speaking.
When my parents were forced (more or less) to sell our house in suburban New Jersey, they followed others who had resettled in the desert Southwest.
This was seen as a “lifestyle choice”.
For a while they lived out of a trailer that they set up in a New Mexico motel parking lot, thanks to the kindness of its proprietor.
Who just happened to be Lebanese.
They bought some land from a divvied-up ranch, dug a well, dragged in some electric lines, set up a satellite dish, and towed in a pre-fab house.
The land quite obviously previously belonged to the Indian population now parked nearby on a reservation.
In the small down-and-dirty nearby town, long past its glory days as a center for mining and a waystation for cattle en route to Chicago’s slaughterhouses, there remains an edifice of deculturation for the children of these Navajo.
They won’t tear it down because the cost is too high.
I mean to say it is full of asbestos.
And so it remains as a landmark of cultural oppression.
In New Jersey we grew up next to the town of Manville.
Owned by the Johns-Manville company.
It used to “snow” asbestos in the summertime.
Many of the town’s residents died lingering horrifying deaths.
Victims of corporate oppression.
When my family lost its connection to this place it was quite a non-event.
By this I mean to say it occurred with little fanfare.
And returning comes with a feeling of little or no connection.
Which is rather disconcerting.
This little town in the high desert that my parents retired to manages to survive against all odds in a quite inhospitable environment.
Every year they have a celebration of “return”: Old Timers Reunion.
It is a lively event, and quite enjoyable, and rather festive.
It is also rather surreal in its ahistoricity.
By this I mean to say that a parade that includes the original land-dwellers as well as their extirpators is nothing if not quite disturbing.
I was happy to hear local leaders speaking Navajo.
Original culture is nothing if not resistant.
Despite the odds stacked against it.
Thinking of this town comes with a feeling of little or no connection.
As much as my father referred to it as “God’s country”.
And pretended to be happily settled there.
In a plastic structure barely connected to the land.
And their departure from which was likewise little noticed.
Their house is currently up for sale.
I recall my father telling me that when my parents got married, for a scant 500 dollars, he bought some land in the Catskill hills of New York.
In a sleepy village that was named for the original town that was drowned when the Ashokan reservoir was constructed.
One of the “Ten Lost Towns”.
Populated by many who were forced to work for the water needs of a city 100 miles away.
And who couldn’t bear being resettled in nearby Kingston.
At one point the city condemned the property as “watershed”, rendering it valueless.
A civil lawsuit on behalf of landowners overturned this ruling.
Needless to say, the land is being bought up by wealthy New York City residents.
We might refer to this as: “Adding Insult to Injury”.
I’m just saying.
I often tried to imagine myself living in this tiny upstate town.
On this swampy tract of land.
With its beaver dam.
And its strange circle of abandoned car carcasses.
But there is no sense of connection here.
The land is currently up for sale.
With little to no fanfare.
Both my father and my grandfather yearned to connect with place.
Just like me.
A family tradition.
My grandfather worked in a ritzy hotel on Madison Avenue.
He was basically an exalted doorman, and he sported a fancy uniform.
He identified with the top drawers he was asked to serve.
Instead of with those whence he came.
Just like my father.
Just like me.
A momentous disconnection.
My grandmother was a tough-as-nails Irishwoman.
She lived nothing if not a hard life.
She was never so upset as when my father’s genealogical research showed her side of the family to be descended from French Huguenots.
She practically disowned him on the spot.
This represents the limit of what I know about the family “history”.
I remember a woman in my creative writing classes in Paris.
She was exiled from Ireland for political reasons.
She was separated from her son whom she had not seen in years.
She wrote poetry in Gaelic.
I learned more about what it means to be “Irish” from her than from my own father.
Who denied this aspect of his own lineage.
Just like his father before him.
When my grandfather died, his will stipulated that, disproportional to his existence, his wake should be held at the rather tony Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I don’t think my grandmother had much patience for such highfalutin shenanigans.
She was heard to say: “That selfish son-of-a-bitch just wants to take all his money with him!”
Nonetheless, she arranged for the funeral.
Apparently the wake was a major affair.
Visitors ranged from the hoi polloi to the upper crusts.
There were shifty bookies who forgave him his debts.
There were shady ladies of the evening.
Card sharks and bar flies.
Rabble and royals.
My great uncle worked for the IRS collecting taxes and fines from distillers and bars.
He was often required to requisition output or stock as penalty or payment.
Or a “greasing of the palm”, shall we say.
He showed up from work with a large bag.
It gave off a familiar clinking sound.
As if on cue, everyone fell in line.
My grandmother surveyed the room.
She was heard to say: “Goddamned sons of bitches will never leave now!”
She told my father to go fetch some glasses.
The head of the funeral home announced closing of the hall.
No one moved.
A second time came the announcement terminating the hours of the wake.
A third time, as my father arrived and, well, set up bar.
The funeral home owner could not but roll his eyes and leave the wake to peter out of its own free will.
He obviously knew better.
It might very well have been a first for a Frank E. Campbell wake.
And so I give my grandfather a certain amount of credit.
For resisting in death what he kowtowed to in life.
Things got, shall we say, a bit lively after my father’s intervention.
My great aunt, an extremely devout Catholic woman, was completely horrified.
She started in with my grandmother.
She said: “He’s not even cold in his grave and you’re passing out the liquor at his very wake! This is nothing if not a sacrilege! God will never forgive you!”
My grandmother took stock of the situation.
My grandmother was then heard to reply: “That son-of-a-bitch never turned down a goddamned drink in his entire life!”
“No matter what time of the day or night!”
“And never just one!”
Note: This was the major contributing factor concerning his death.
She continued: “I’ll be damned if I don’t wait right here to make sure one last time that he’s really good and dead!”
Which he quite evidently was.
May God rest his soul, wherever he ended up.
I wonder sometimes whether he would do it all again.
Knowing what he might know now of his children and children’s children’s lives.
I wonder the same for my father.
Who likewise clung to similar myths until his dying day as well.
Which was two years ago to the very day.
When I precipitously flew back to the States for this eventuality I had to go through border control in the Montreal airport.
I’m not sure I understand how this works exactly.
I mean to say, how a country moves a piece of its border hundreds of miles north.
The border control officer–quite unexpectedly–asked me the following question:
“Who was the petitioner for your naturalization?”
I think it is the word “Lebanon” underneath the word “birthplace” that got his attention.
I was extremely tired from the flight, much less the worry and the desire to be done with the last leg of the journey already.
I frankly did not understand the question.
I also knew I was in a judicial no-man’s-land, with little in the way of rights.
As an “American”, I mean to say.
And so as politely as I could, I asked him to repeat his question.
Which he did, much more loudly, and much more slowly.
I assured him I understood the question as originally posed.
I simply did not know what he meant.
Could he give me an example?
“Yeah, you know, like the woman you married to get into the country.”
His exact words.
I stared at him in anger and disbelief.
I managed to say: “I was five years old when I was naturalized.”
I neglected to add the bit about being adopted.
“So, your parents.”
I neglected to add the bit about being on the way to the hospital where my father was clinging to life.
“Yes, my parents.”
I neglected to explain how a lifetime of listening to such statements makes for much in the way of disconnection that I finally decided to act on.
Which went very far to explain the reason for my return from so far afield.
Many simply swallow these random acts of a violent society for their entire lives.
Like my grandfather.
May God rest him.
Like my father.
May God have mercy on his soul.
My mother said to me at one point that he hung on, waiting for all of us to be around him when he passed.
I said: “Or else he was just being his usual stubborn old self!”
We laughed at the very likelihood of this fact.
I pray he finds in passing the peace he could not find in living.
The lesson, learned over two generations, remains nonetheless.
Despite the cliche of it, you cannot, in fact, take it with you when you go.
“Putting down roots” is not compatible with societally imposed rootlessness.
“Tracing a family tree” is a useless endeavor of grafted branches down the line.
What wasn’t yours to begin with cannot in any way, shape, or form be passed down.
Disconnection, displacement, and dispossession are not conducive to anything we might refer to as living.
And the closer we are to the time of our own passing, the more disturbing this revelation; and the rather greater its impact.
Image: Abandoned cars | Date: November, 2002 | Place: Upstate New York | Camera: keyring digital “spy” cam | Caption: I could not explain this ring of cars riddled with bullets in the middle of the property, given that the landscape seemed “virginal” and quite impossible to drive anything up onto.