Last month one more link in my family line was laid to rest. I saw my maternal grandmother buried. In writing her eulogy I couldn’t help but be keenly aware of how many boughs of my family tree produce uncertainties—so many phantom, questionable, and half-related branches—so many spaces for names I have to leave empty.
Questions abound on the maternal side of my family. I know that I have a number of half-uncles and half-aunts, but I don’t know how many. (I only know one personally.) I don’t know my maternal grandfather’s first name. I’ve probably heard it, and I could find out, but that detail has never taken up permanent residence in my brain. He died when I was three, and was not often talked about—at least not around me.
I have tenuous memories of his funeral—the hole in the ground (and my fear of falling in), the soft brown dress suit with silver buttons my mother wore (one of my favorite things to see her in). Yet most of my mental picture from that day is empty. Did I toss a red rose on his coffin? Or was that a dream? Was my grandmother—or any of the other woman he fathered children by—there? Uncertainty.
My grandfather had children with at least three different women. He may have married one of them, but I’m not certain. Grandma C never married at all and had only one child (my mother). I don’t know if she thought she was in love with and would marry my grandfather, or if he was already married. I don’t know if he filled her ears with sweet-talk and her mind with empty promises. Was she beguiled by or despite his perfidious nature, or did she, simply wanting a child, know exactly what sort of man he was? What was it like raising a child on her own in that place and at that time—a no-secrets-or-strangers-here-small, highly religious island in the 1950s? Was her situation scandalous or commonplace? Was she accepted or ostracized? Uncertainties abound in my mind.
The paternal side of my family tree is less ambiguous. Its limbs are well defined until I get to my great-grandparents. Grandma F’s mother died when she was a small child. Then her father disowned her because she was cross-eyed. Her aunt tried to raise her, but wanted an independent (i.e., child free) life. So Grandma F spent most of her youth in an orphanage until she was adopted—though her descriptions of “adoption” sound more like servanthood to me.
One day a young officer (my grandfather) expressed an interest in marrying her. She didn’t fall in love with him; she chose to love him because he chose her. She loved him well: a pure, longsuffering, and kind wife. She loved him through years of poverty and bounty, his ego and infidelity, civic unrest, and political instability.
She loved him enough to literally live with the consequences of his adultery. Before their first year of marriage had come to a close, he brought home a baby boy born to him by another woman. He wanted his firstborn son raised under his roof. And so my grandmother’s first child was not her own. Did she cry, protest, or complain? Did she contemplate leaving? Did the baby melt her heart and evoke her love? Or did she simply grit her teeth and play the mother part? Uncertainty.
It makes me wonder how my two grandmothers got along—each affected by infidelity, but playing different roles. Were they conscious of the opposing archetypes they represented (the other woman and the good wife)? Did any of this affect their friendship? Was there jealousy or just understanding? Did they fight, commiserate, or feel conflicting feelings?
Perhaps it wasn’t even thought about, let alone discussed. They lived in a country and culture where instances of infidelity were as easy to find as churches. Perhaps it was just life as they knew it—no scandal, no shame, no stigma. Perhaps I’m inventing all these currents of drama.
I have no point of reference for understanding the lives my grandmothers lived. I cannot imagine loving the way they loved, or being able to forgive betrayals as they did. I want to know how they did it and what it really cost them, but my connection to one primary source (with Grandma C now dead) has been broken. I could ask some things of Grandma F, but it would feel like a cruelty. I’m afraid of the revisited pain my questions could bring to the surface, and I don’t want to add one drop to the pool of her suffering. She was denied and abandoned as a child, betrayed as a wife, and now, widowed, lays half paralyzed—confined to her bed by a stroke, free only in her memory and imagination.
My family tree is full of uncertainty—so many limbs, connections, and classifications I know nothing about. So many questions circulate in my head—questions about my grandmothers and their respective lives. How and why they made the decisions they made. What thoughts ran through their minds on their best and worst days? There’s so much I’d love to know but can’t or won’t ask—answers that can’t be demanded of the dead or that would revisit hurt upon the living. In the case of my grandmothers, I’ve decided I know enough: their love for me and my love for them. And so of everything else I am (and will continue to be) curious, but uncertain.