Monday, December 5, 2016

For Sarah Kendzior, Part 2: The Struggles Of My Ancestors


I spoke of my mother's struggle in my last post. I did not embellish it with much detail, but I owe it to her to say that she did her best to overcome her hardships and in some important respects, she succeeded. Neither my sister nor I would be the people we are today were it not for her sacrifices, and for her compassion that was always evident and passed on to us by example.

Mom always saw the good in people, but she often didn't allow that it might not have made them who they were. She didn't have the best judgment when it came to people who came into her life, and all too often, it resulted in her being taken advantage of. The details are incidental to the effect this had on me, but I'll say that I learned from this, too.  I just wish it didn't have to hurt so much. It left me bitter, and I have yet to overcome that.

I do try to see the good in people, and I try really hard to give the benefit of the doubt. My mother's troubles, however, have left me with a kind of radar that is sensitive to gimmicks and lies. I cannot deny that there may be some good in the gimmickers and liars, or that perhaps their own struggles have influenced their behavior in ways they might, on some level, be ashamed of. Knowing this, I will often give people a second chance, but there is a law of diminishing returns.

I'll have more to say about Mom when I get to my own biography. I'll bring up more about my colorful ancestry some other time.


My father had a great deal to overcome. He was one of four children born to a small-town couple in rural Indiana. He came of age at the time of the Great Depression. The Depression hit the rural Midwest especially hard. In the midst of this, his father, a grandfather I would never know, just picked up and left one day, never to return. The bitterness of this experience left him and his siblings literally speechless about their father. Dad never talked about him, save for one thing he told me that I will get to later. Neither did his brothers. My aunt on his side died when I was young, but I presume she never talked about it either.

A few years ago, one of my cousins did some research on him, and was able to piece together a history and some of the details of his life before and after he abandoned his family. Thanks to her efforts, I was finally able to understand a little about him. He was himself abandoned by his single mother, who left him in the care of his grandparents, to pursue a life with another man, and to have a family with him. She never came back for my grandfather. I cannot fathom the scars this must have left him with, but it does lend some understanding of why he left his own family - even if I cannot forgive him.

My grandmother was as tough and enduring as iron. She had enough of an education to work as a schoolteacher in the small Indiana town where she lived. Playing piano at a local church brought in a little more money. Dad and his brothers would do what they could to help out, working in the fields at harvest time, taking whatever odd jobs they could get. They were able to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads until WWII came along and the economy picked up. 

At the onset of the war, Dad and his older brother enlisted in the Navy. This brings me to the point where I can talk about the only conversation Dad ever had with his father that he shared with me. My grandfather told him, "Look, if there's ever a war, do whatever you can to stay out of it. You can make money in a war."

Dad used to tell me a story about how he joined the Navy because he didn't want to get drafted. I believed him, and I was OK with it, but I discovered after his death that the story was bunk. I obtained his service records from the VA, intending to see if I could get him some kind of memorial. The records included his enlistment date: January, 1942, a little less than 4 weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Dad told me another story of how he was rejected at his first attempt at enlistment because of his asthma. A trainer at his gym helped him to get the rattle out of his chest long enough to pass the physical on his second try. This explains the brief delay between December 7 and his enlistment date. It was true that he didn't want to wait to get drafted. He wanted to get into the fight as soon as he could.

Dad met my mother while he was stationed at a Navy training center in Toledo. They married and conceived my sister before he shipped out to the Pacific. There, he participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, a successful campaign that allowed the Americans to retake the Philippines. Dad was stationed there for the duration of the war. He would tell me stories of his war years over and over again, and I hung on every word, every time. At the war's end, he had attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer, which he retained through several years in the reserves after the war.

So much for my grandfather's advice. Like everyone who accepted the call of duty in that terrible war, Dad was a hero. I am immensely proud of his service to this country, and it is as much for his sake as for mine and my daughter's that I'm not about to let this country be destroyed from within.

Dad's hardships, the bitterness of his abandonment, and the terrors of war made him strong, but it also led him to seek refuge in a bottle of gin. This ultimately led to the unraveling of my family and my own abandonment after the divorce. Dad always paid his child support on time, but he didn't visit my sister and me more than 2 or 3 times in the 4 years until my mother's death. I was in my teens then, and very much in need of a father. His absence from my life left me with some scars of my own.

When Mom died midway through my senior year in high school, I moved in with him. He always saw to it that I had a good dinner, money for lunch, and that my other material needs were met, but he couldn't bring himself to stop drinking. Many evenings, he left me alone to go to the bar down the street. As a small businessman, he worked almost every day, so I still didn't get to see him very much in the short time I lived with him. The summer following my high school graduation, I went off to college on a small scholarship I'd been awarded. I would return home from time to time after that, but it was the end of my life with him. 

By and by, my own life became very tangled - more on that in a future post - and I had to hit him up for money once in a while, but I was living in another city then, and I only went home at Christmas and a few other times. I had failed at college and was living hand to mouth, taking a succession of shitty jobs just to get by. This would continue for several years. By my mid-20s, I came to realize that my life was going nowhere, so I enrolled in a local community college to pursue an associate degree in electronics. I worked in a small factory by day and attended classes at night. After 2 years of this, I was faced with a terrible dilemma. In order to keep my tuition support from the state, I had to take at least 3 classes per term, and I had run out of options for night school. I would have to quit my job or limit my classes. This was not really an option, as I would lose my tuition support and it would take me another 2½ years to graduate.

I went to my father, hat in hand, to ask him for help. By then, we were completely estranged, and he did not know what I had been doing the past two years. I brought him my transcripts - nearly all A's - and explained my situation to him. Years before, I had failed him by flunking out of college on his dime, so asking him for help was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

He did not hesitate. He asked me for an estimate of my living expenses, and he carried me through my final year of school, which allowed me to graduate and take a good job afterward. For all the disappointments, and despite his flaws, he had never given up on me. He was my father.

It was through adversity that I learned perseverance. But it was from Dad that I learned about giving second chances. The second chances we each gave to the other.

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