Family History in a Box

Earlier this week, my¬† uncle died and my mom was unfortunate enough to make that unwanted trip to her brother’s house to empty/clean it. While I am upset over the events, yada, the trip ultimately had some awesome attached to it in that my mom was able to recover lots of old stuff from her family, and I just love looking at old stuff, so this was kind of like silver lining.

(I’m not trying to sound insensitive about death, because honestly, death sucks, but nobody wants to be dragged down by reading a blog full of anguish and all that, so I’m going to keep the tone light.)

Mom has this giant box filled with stuff that she hasn’t seen in years, and she literally lights up at the opportunity to pass along the history that had been passed along to her. My uncle was a horrible horder; even though both of my grandparents had died, he still lived in their house and would never let us have any of their things. So she had piles of pictures and scrapbooks and autographs and such, and everything was just sort of overwhelming.

My mom’s side of the family has a rich military history. Like super-duper military. My grandmother’s uncle was General George Patton. My grandfather was a sailor in the Navy during WWII and a detective. My other uncle served as a Marine in Vietnam–we have a ton of pictures of Vietnam and mom has some really bad Platoon type stories about his time there. My great uncle earned a Purple Heart after his submarine was torpedoed in WWII and we have a signed certificate from Franklin-freaking-Roosevelt commending him. And these are only the people my mom has pictures of, but there were many more veterans. It’s pretty legit.

I’m not a “Woo hoo I heart War” type person (you can support a soldier without supporting a war), but I recognize the significance of these things. I acknowledge the history. And even though I generally detest the school learning of history, I love tangible history. I want to hold history in my hands, see it with my own eyes, and know its impact on me. I appreciate museums not textbooks.

The most important thing anyone should know about my mom is that she’s a storyteller. She loves to tell me everything from stories about her childhood to TV shows she just watched to magazine articles she’s read. Sometimes I watch things on TV that I know I’ve never seen, and I’ll think, why is this so familiar? It’s because my mom told me she watched it the other day, and then told me the entire story, thus rendering my need to watch it irrelevant. She loves telling and I love listening.

So as I said earlier, my grandfather was a detective. My mom grew up in Flint, Michigan (the subject of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, the only film of his I’ve been able to finish), and my grandfather served from 1950 to the mid-sixties, retiring, I believe, just around the Detroit Race Riots. We’re looking through pictures and newspaper clippings, and mom’s telling away all of the stories she can remember being told by grandpa years later. And I’m thinking, yeah he’s a police officer, but it’s the fifties, how bad can it be?

It was bad. So so bad. It might sound pretty standard now, but it was pretty bad then.

My grandfather was the kind of guy who was in the newspaper a lot. He stopped a number of robberies, got kidnapped for 1o hours, had guns pointed to his head, and had his back broken by a robber and still managed to arrest the guy. He did some Secret Service support in Detroit for a visiting JFK and later VP Nixon–both of whom wrote him very nice letters thanking him for his excellent service. Case in point: My grandpa was a badass.

And I have never known him to be a badass. My grandpa was the kind of guy who caught an absurd amount of fish (75 in one day–made the local paper) and played the harmonica. He played cowboys with my brother and dyed eggs on Easter. He posed for pictures eating a sugar Christmas cookie with a silly face and bought Easy Bake Ovens. He had military tattoos on his arm, but he never talked about them. He was just a regular grandpa.

My mom, like me, is the youngest of four–though she is the child of both of my grandparents’ second marriages. I only ever knew my grandpa when he were pretty old and subdued–a wild young life full of crime fighting and honorable stuff. I love knowing this side. This is how my mom remembered him. She walked me through the clippings, cursing at his kidnappers or the man who broke his back, and she rarely curses.

I am so glad to know this stuff. I fear that family history is slowly lost to this generation of people always looking forward, refusing to acknowledge what has been. I probably sound like a bitter old man, but it’s true. My sister could probably care less about this kind of stuff. She won’t understand the significance of the Purple Heart or how many lives my grandpa saved (and how much grief he got from grandma) by putting his life on the line.

I’m not sure where this post was supposed to go–I was just too excited about all of this awesome stuff that I had to get out and tell someone–but I guess it’s kind of like a Veteran’s Day post. I am proud of all my grandpa has done and all that my grandma’s family has done without regard of the personal consequences. My history comes alive in their stories and their keepsakes, and that’s something I want to share with others and something that I hope will never go.


(also: My uncle had acquired a good deal of autographs, which I love looking at; the highlights of which are Dolly Parton, Tom Selleck, Tom Selleck’s mustache, Mark Harmon,Tony Danza, Hulk Hogan, the Captain and Tenielle, Gary Lewis, and Mark Farner, among others. Super cool.)