A photo I saw long has stayed in my mind’s eye ever since. It was a picture of my grandparents as a young couple lounging on the grass with friends. There was no date on back or front, nor names of the people, but I knew my grandpa among the young men and picked out Grandma immediately.
There was a skinny fellow wearing a World War I uniform, and the rest of the men were in suits with Irish caps, white shirts; the women in starched white shirtwaists and calf-length dark skirts. I figure the photo was taken some time between 1917 and 1920.
This piece of history I haven’t seen again opened a world of speculation about my grandparents that I’ve thought of now and then throughout my life. Grandpa lounges on one elbow in front of the group of eight friends, holding a black cheroot, a cocky grin on his handsome Irish face. I never knew him like this – the eagerness and surety of youth touching anyone who looks upon him. I knew him as the gentle, good-natured old fellow who smoked cigars, watched the fights on Friday nights and let me crawl all over him taking his temperature, bandaging his fingers, giving him sugar pills from my doctor’s kit.
In the photo, I see an irresistible fellow, carefree and full to the brim with himself. I first became aware of him when I was a little girl of 3; he was 70.
My grandma, her soft, light-colored pompadour curling around her face, has her mouth open. I laughed when I first saw it because I remember her this way, talking, telling someone what to do, berating Grandpa for dropping ashes on his shirt, among the hundred other things she didn’t seem to like about him. She was a pistol at 70, famous in town for writing poems about family and friends and honing her skills both verbal and written over the decades from when this picnic picture was snapped.
I always thought she would wear Grandpa down, but he stayed nice and calm until he died at 93.
Something about the picnic picture of Grandma nagged at me, and I went searching for a photo of me where I had suddenly thought I looked just like her. The longer I looked at it the more I believed I was indeed the image of my dad’s mother. Although I’m only nine in the photo as I stand before the camera holding the first and only fish I’ve ever caught in my life, I see that my mouth is open, a serious frown creases my brow —I am a miniature Grandma O’Brien
It was disconcerting to see these two females, years apart yet connected by the particular genes that determine facial structure and expression. I got a bit of her irritable impatience but nowhere near the intensity of hers. She was a regular crab, and I am only a sometimes crab. In the picnic photo I haven’t seen for half a century, she was probably early thirties, and I just know she’s telling the photographer what to do.
I do believe that it is my heritage that has more to do with who I am than anything else. Much of it is obvious because I can see it, that I have the build, the hair color , the upturned nose of different ancestors. But it is their innate personalities – the kindness or the meanness, the generosity or the stinginess -- that lurk in my soul, unseen but defining me in my actions.
As my children grew, I felt increasingly that they had started rearing themselves when they came out of the womb. My training and brainwashing have been a surface ritual that is a veneer on their very individual selves. Of course, my helping them grow is also a family pattern, with leftovers of my parents’ training, and of their parents’. I am, like everyone else in the world, a very intertwined process of genes and environment. But, lord, those phantoms of past generations that appear in oneself and then in one’s children are as eerie as they are predictable. My older sister and I were delighted when we watched our younger sister walk away from us in a restaurant one day, and we saw that she had our mother’s elbows! How did we even know our mom’s elbows? And then the consensus of the family who decided my own daughter wasn’t like me but a combination of one of her grandmas and two of her great grandmas – this girl was rightfully identified considering her heritage -- in charge. One of them of course being the bossy Grandma Mae, who would have loved her great granddaughter’s independence.
It’s easy for me to see the physical resemblances I have to my dad and my mom. And I see in myself quirks that are the negatives of my mom or my dad, of my grandmas and grandpas. As I recognize the annoying ones (for example, like when I was 13 and would mutter, “I will never say no to my children the way my mom and dad do!”), I concentrate on ousting them, but they return. They are part of me. As I pile up mounds of letters, papers, poems and junk mail in my office, I am my Grandma Mae, who was an inadvertent collector because she’d rather read a book than clean her desk. She was a casual housekeeper, pursuer of all newspapers accumulating in piles all over the house. She cooked and baked and never quite cleaned up; she arranged cut flowers in vases throughout and left them to wilt and dry out.
When I see that I am the same, I turn into my mom, product of her mom, my grandma Grace – a woman of perennially tidy house and person. I can leap to clean with a vengeance, get rid of rake by backdoor and newspaper all over the couch. I see in this dichotomy how I am two sides of a coin, the inheritor of two very different ways of being, the one minute, tidy; the next, oblivious.
My two grandmothers loved me at all times – I could feel it from both of them, that ineffable, unconditional love, so it’s no wonder that if I didn’t inherit their behavior, I certainly learned it: I watched unintentionally as I played, as children do; I studied casually as I pretended to write my own poems at Grandma Mae’s and dusted the buffet at Grandma Grace’s. Around the daily goings-on of my grandmas in their very different lives, I learned ways to be. It seeped into my very Id, and I adopted it as my behavior, my way of being. Friction never entered their rooms when we were together.
I was never mean to Grampa Tom like Grandma Mae was, and I never kowtowed to Grampa Frank as Grandma Grace did; I left those traits for my sister to use on me; being one year older, she was good at being mean and being that one year younger, I was good at kowtowing.
I wish I’d known the two beautiful young people at the picnic more than a century ago, but I probably do, don’t I? I am their blood and brains, and I act and react in ways they would recognize. I know I have a bit of the cheeriness and gentleness of my Grandpa Tom; I admit to having a tad of Granma Mae’s bent to complain. If I can’t admit the crabby genes, I can’t lay claim to the good ones. I am left with this thought from the photograph never seen again after that one time – if these two far-off lovers at the 1917 picnic never laid side by side, I wouldn’t be here now with somebody’s nose, somebody’s toes and a heart full of quirks and faults – theirs, and now mine.