by John Long
Originally posted at http://www.nntlostforwords.com/2016/09/family-ties.html
My grandmother and her partner were all I had as a child. They fed and clothed me, paid the doctor when I was sick, and loved and believed in me when no one else did. They were my deeply disturbed and depressed universe until I finally fled at age 18. I owe them everything.
Frances, my grandmother, was born into a congenitally unhappy family in 1905. Her father was the superintendent of a large cemetery, her mother a talented painter from Boston. They lived with their six children in an old farmhouse wedged between the back of the cemetery and the railroad tracks, far from anyone at the edge of town.
I can’t conceive of what life was like for them. I do know that my great grandfather was a cold and distant man, capable of extreme cruelty. My great grandmother was “unwell,” as people said at the time, and tried to kill herself at least once. There was no help for people like this back then. They were talked about, avoided and left to suffer on their own.
There were four brothers and two sisters. One brother committed suicide not long after he returned from the Great War. Another killed himself a few years later. A third was a drinker who remarried “unwisely” and kicked his teenage son out of the house at his new wife’s insistence. My great aunt was selfish and mean like her father. My grandmother, according to everyone who knew her, never had a happy day her whole life.
Frances was sharp, no-nonsense and opinionated, and could do math calculations almost instantly in her head. She knew lots of people by name but didn’t do small talk, kept to herself and never invited anyone into her home. She got up at exactly 5 AM every day, chain-smoked her way through three packs of unfiltered Kools, worked the crossword puzzle, bullied my “aunt” relentlessly and broke down in hysterical crying if a truck passed our car on the road or dinner was served five minutes late. She never used makeup and wore the same unfashionable 1940s dresses every day. She had two “nervous breakdowns” before she turned 50, the second leaving her in tears at a downtown intersection, unable to even cross the street.
It was painful to see how she suffered. Unfortunately, we suffered right along with her. I don’t have the sort of textural memories other people have. Just random snapshots, mostly anchored by moments of strong emotion. What I remember from my childhood is hiding in the corner by my bed from the emotional storms of my grandmother’s life and, as I grew older, being out on the street on holidays when she completely lost control. I left home the minute my high school graduation ceremony ended and never willingly went back.
I’ve always known that my grandmother and I are alike. We share, to one degree or another, many of the same behaviors and ways of thinking that finally drove me toward an autism diagnosis at age 63. She’s the mirror that has terrified me since early childhood.
She’s also a window into how my atypical neurology has been expressed among our family members over succeeding generations. I have no idea what specifically tortured her parents or siblings. It’s almost as though the building blocks of my autism and associated neurological challenges were expressing themselves to a greater or lessor degree among my family members.
Some families seem to dilute these differences over the years. Happier adults produce happier children and memories fade. Others concentrate these differences as individuals attract mates who also don’t fit in and, together, they pass their challenges along to another generation.
My grandmother Frances married a womanizing, alcoholic bigamist who abandoned her soon after their only child was born. My mother was handed off to her cousin’s family from infancy until she finally was old enough to have three ruined marriages of her own. She spent over 50 years abusing drugs, alcohol and her own children, excusing any excess and behavior that helped her cope with runaway fears and anxieties. Her half brother only differed in the depth of his alcoholism.
How do you unpack all the moving parts of a family like this? I spent decades desperately trying not to be like these people. I’ve been married for 34 years, have two adult sons and survived corporate life long enough to reach retirement. Even in my darkest moments, I was determined to bury my problems and somehow break the pattern of misery that had afflicted my family.
My autism diagnosis has helped. Understanding why I’m me has disrupted the cycle of blaming myself for being different. It also has helped me to stop running away from my past. I now understand more of what was going on with my family and, due to the times, why it was impossible for them to break loose from their unhappiness. I feel their pain accutely, but I don’t blame or fear them anymore.
I have a first cousin on my father’s side who is autistic. There are several other “neurologically different” relatives in this tribe who somehow have escaped labels. They clearly have their own family history to piece together.
All of this explains me in a way my diagnosis never can. Lately, I’ve had a recurring dream of going back home and explaining to my grandmother why she is so different. No one moves or speaks in this dream. Everything is static and emotionally neutral. It comforts me to think she might understand and let go of her own pain.