It’s time to talk about both of my grandfathers.
Jack (actually, Jean-Louis, but he didn’t use that name), my father’s father, was charismatic, suave and handsome. Everyone liked Jack. He was also in the mafia. He killed people.
He disappeared when my father was five. There are two possibilities. One is that he was going to serve real time if he didn’t flee. Jack’s friends in the police department (so yes, he was the sort of criminal who had friends in law enforcement) had told him that they were going to have to pick him up if he didn’t leave town.
But the other possibility is that he had to run because he crossed the wrong person in the mafia. We’ll never know for sure which is true.
Jack stole someone else’s name and Social Security number. He started a new life in some town in Illinois. His family never heard from him again. We only learned that he had died because the woman he was staying with found some information on my grandmother’s maiden name long after his death. She knew my grandfather had originally been from Brooklyn and that he had kids. So she was able to send a letter to our family.
Jean-Louis is buried in Chicago, under a false name that isn’t even the right ethnicity. My father never visited his father’s grave. Even when he traveled to Chicago, he was always “too busy.”
I saw my father cry on a grand total of three occasions. Once was when he talked about two good friends of ours who had been murdered, shot to death in front of their kids. The other two times were when he talked about my grandfather.
At my grandmother’s funeral, my father told a story. He talked about the time Jack had locked him and his sister in a closet. And then just left them there. My grandmother eventually came home from work and opened the door. My father and his sister came out of the closet.
Many people ask about Jack’s own parents. We don’t know much about them. But I do know his mother committed suicide. By drinking Lysol.
It’s one thing to commit suicide. It’s entirely another thing to commit suicide by drinking Lysol.
If you ever want to know what I mean by “inter-generational family sickness”, this is it. If you ever want to know why I call mental illness the mere symptom of family sickness, this is why.
Remember, everybody liked Jack. I believe my grandmother was still in love with him, until the day she died. She had numerous suitors after his death. She never married any of them.
LeRoy, my grandfather on my mother’s side, was intelligent, extraordinarily driven, and incredibly disciplined. He was the family standard-bearer, his mother’s first son. He grew up in a poor preacher’s household with seven siblings. They were always financially strapped. But he–he was going to succeed. Upon graduating from college and discharging his commitment to the military, he moved to Seattle and started work as a Boeing aeronautical engineer.
LeRoy loved his job and was loyal to his company. He didn’t always love his impossible boss, who he called “No-Heart Newhart.” He bought a house on Mercer Island, right on the shores of Lake Washington. Folks, this is rich people’s territory. LeRoy and my grandmother raised five kids in that house, and he was so financially prudent, and worked so hard, that when he retired his income wasn’t even going to drop. He was quite proud of that.
But he never got to retirement.
He never got there despite being a health fanatic. His determination and will-power were legendary. When his own father had a stroke, he decided he needed to eat healthy. So he did it. He completely changed his diet. And when he realized he needed to quit smoking, he quit. Cold turkey. He said he craved cigarettes for another decade after quitting. But he never went back.
LeRoy was intelligent, resourceful, driven, determined and…
And he also liked to climb mountains. Alone.
Just before my second birthday, and when his youngest daughter was still a teenager, he fell off The Tooth, a mountain in the Cascades, and died.
He was 54. If only he had lived one more year, his wife could have claimed his pension. But she never saw a dime of it. He died too young. And if he had lived thirty more years, his children could have reconciled with him the way they did with their mother. And his grandchildren could have experienced his presence.
My mother, his oldest daughter, says it took her twenty years to get over the trauma of his death. I think she might be looking at the past with rose-colored glasses. I’m not completely certain that any of his kids have ever gotten over his death.
I’m not into this fake healing, positive thinking stuff. You know, where you are supposed to look back at your parents or grandparents and say, “They did their best”.
No, honestly, they didn’t always do their best. (Then again, I haven’t always done my best either.)
Or the fake forgiveness thing. “Well, their intentions…” LeRoy, who climbed mountains alone? Fuck his intentions.
And Jack, who disappeared on his family? Fuck him. No really, just fuck him.
Maybe he was just trying to escape prison. In that case, why couldn’t he serve his time like a man? Then my father could have told him to burn in Hell in person. Or cried in front of him. Or told him that he’d love him forever, no matter what. Or done whatever, honestly. But my father could have done it.
And even if he was fleeing the mafia…You know what? If he hadn’t fled, at least there would have been a funeral.
No, I don’t care about their intentions. Either of them.
I care about their stories, though.
See if you don’t learn the stories of the ghosts that haunt you those ghosts are going to control you. They will possess you. And if you want to heal, you can’t just mindlessly “forgive” the ghosts that haunt your family. You have to express what you feel, and you have to do it directly.
But at some point, I had to turn my ghosts into ancestors. My grandfathers are my ancestors. I’m glad for my will-power and determination. And I’m grateful for my charisma and my ability to use violence. Because sometimes the world is not a benign place.
I see so many people advocating that you should “live your own life.” That sounds simple. But it’s not so easy to “live your own life.”
When I started being a pastor I legitimately tried to finish my father’s work–work that he started because he was fleeing his own father’s memory. He rebelled–by being a pastor to young, disadvantaged men who didn’t have fathers themselves. He rebelled by doing good.
But dealing with Jack was actually easier, because his influence was so obvious. LeRoy’s influence was more subtle. I remember once mentioning to my mother that, after I had achieved financial independence, it didn’t feel like a triumph. It didn’t feel like anything, actually. I was surprised.
Well, no wonder. Financial independence was never my dream. In fact it was never my dream to retire at all. I’m an entrepreneur. I haven’t had a boss since 2004, let alone a “No-Heart Newhart.”
And for years, I’ve been plotting on how to buy a beautiful house on a waterfront somewhere. I’ve always thought a big house with a view would be the pinnacle of whatever “success” money can buy. But every time I actually visit a home that’s for sale, the smells of the lakefront remind me of my grandmother. And I always find some reason to say no.
Finally, and this only happened one week ago, I was literally standing on the shores of Mercer Island, looking at the city lights across the waves. And I figured it out.
That house on the lake? It’s not my dream. It’s his dream.
It’s his ghost.
You can spend your whole life being possessed by a ghost, and not even realize it. Thank God my mother told me the story of LeRoy being so proud of how high his income would be in retirement. If I hadn’t heard that story, I don’t know that I’d have ever figured out that financial independence was not my own dream.
Jean-Louis and LeRoy are my ancestors. However.
No matter how many people I minister to, no matter how much I dedicate myself to the issues of prisons and justice, no matter how much I try to help other people, it will never redeem my grandfather. And it will never fix my grandfather’s relationship with my father.
It will never stop my father’s tears.
And no matter how much money I make, no matter how much I save, no matter how expensive a lakefront property I can afford, it will never resurrect my grandfather.
And it can’t save my mother, either.