Sometimes the Good Old Days Were Not So Good

March 19, 2010

For Thursday, March 18, 2010

You must walk. It is a long journey, through a country that is sometimes pleasant and sometimes dark and terrible.
• L. Frank Baum,
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Whenever I hear someone talk about family values and the good old days I think about my Grandpa Wilkins. He was four when his mother died, leaving four children motherless: a two-year-old son, Frank, who later became one of the country’s first airmail pilots; grandpa; and a seven-year-old daughter, Geneva. Grandpa had a half-sister too, Mary Hillman, since his mother had been widowed before she married grandpa’s father. The Hillmans took Mary in when her mother died.

Grandpa Wilkins’ father put his three children into an orphanage so that he could marry a woman who didn’t want to be burdened by the youngsters. Here’s what grandpa told us about the last time he remembers seeing his father: Grandpa was behind the fence of the orphanage–iron with a locked gate–and saw his father driving by in a carriage. Grandpa yelled to him and his father pulled over just long enough to tell his little boy that he couldn’t linger because it was going to rain. Although grandpa waited every day at the fence, hoping to see his father, the man never drove by that way again.

When he was six or seven, grandpa was boarded out and sent from the orphanage to work on various farms, earning room and board and sometimes a little bit extra he was expected to spend on clothes for school. Grandpa’s sister died in the orphanage—family legend has it that she died of a broken heart. His younger brother was boarded out too. When grandpa was sixteen, he ran away and joined the Navy where he was shot in the leg in the Spanish-American War and finally discharged after his work in the bowels of ships left him with significant lung damage.

There’s much more to grandpa’s story, but whenever I hear anyone talk about maintaining the family unit as it was in some imagined past, I remember a little boy waiting behind an iron fence, hoping to see his daddy. While a family may technically be people related by blood and legalities, it’s also comprised of people who care about one another, regardless of who they are or what their their legal or blood relationships are. For me, the primary tradition about families that’s worth maintaining is that they love and care for one another.

Who are the people who care about you and comprise your family?

People do things, one of which might be writing, to help themselves and other people ask questions about who they are, who they might be, what kind of world they want to create, to remind ourselves that we do create the world.
• Barbara Christian


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