This week we continue telling the stories of our Grandparents.
The grandfather I am named after has lost his mind in prison. It’s a form of mercy. When I was a toddler he called my mom a ‘fucking white bitch’ while he held me. My mom took me away and never let him see me again. And it wasn’t this typical narrative of a white woman so afraid blackness that she hides from or even denies it. My mom in fact is a large part of the reason I am connected to my black family. That day she saw something in him that made her say a definitive ‘no’. Ten years later he killed his wife. There’s just no real way to be ready for violence on this scale and it has torn our family apart. We moved away across the country to anywhere besides West Adams. I believe I am the first to move back. A few years back at a particularly vulnerable time the New York Times ran a fairly large article about inmates with Alzheimer’s. In the article appears a big black and white picture of a man I don’t remember but recognize instantly. I look like him and he’s gone.
Erin Hart Wisti:
My Grandpa Andrew, on my dad’s side, basically gave me my entire life. He grew up dirt poor on a potato farm and put himself through school and then law school. He set up shop in Hancock, Michigan, a pretty conservative copper town, and started taking cases for workers injured in the mines. He really changed the atmosphere of the place, taught people how to stand up for their rights, resist the being bullied by big businesses, and how to unionize, vote, and enact change. He was sort of a local hero, a George Bailey type, and not only did his politics have an immeasurable effect on my own thinking as I grew up, he paid for my college tuition. Despite having essentially lived the American Dream, Andrew had absolutely no fantasies about how unattainable that dream is and the utter bullshit the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” adage reject. He knew he was simply in the right place and the right time, and while he worked hard there were people all around him who had worked just as hard, if not harder, and were just as smart, if not smarter, who never made it because good fortune in America is mostly contingent on luck and pre-existing privileges. I think — especially now when there’s so much animosity towards the disadvantaged in our political climate — that’s a fact that can never be overstated.
But I wasn’t very close to Andrew, at least not personally. Most of what I know about him I learned through my Grandma Ruth, who I’m still very, very close to. Ruth taught me how to tell stories and how to think and speak and assert myself as a woman, even though we lived in a very small town in the Midwest, the kind of place where the cultural atmosphere is generally 50 years or more behind-the-times. It’s the sort of place where girls are supposed to aspire to have a ring on their finger by 25, but Ruth always told me not to get married or have kids if that’s not what I wanted. One year, one of Andrew’s friends — a member of the state senate — told Ruth that the wives weren’t invited for the inaugural dinner that year, to which she responded, “You know, there are women IN the senate now.” She has a kindness about her that defies thought. You do nice things because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and you don’t self-aggrandize or even think about it too much. Once, a Vietnamese family was accidentally sent to the Super 8 she owns. They were supposed to go to Houston, Texas, but somehow a communication error sent them to Houghton, Michigan. Ruth helped drive them to an airport five hours out of town, got them on their plane, and even paid for their tickets (they did pay her back eventually, although she wouldn’t have cared if they didn’t). They still send her presents and thank-you notes, and their gratitude baffles her. To Ruth, this was something ANYONE would do and why on earth would a person deserve a reward for what’s expected of every living human? That is, common decency, a sense of charity, and the desire to help those less fortunate.
Not to mention, Ruth is really, really funny. She’s the only member of the Wisti family that will do Vince Vaughn impressions with me. Oftentimes, when I miss a call from her, I have a voice message that starts something like, “ERIN! THIS IS VINCE VAUGHN CALLING YOU!”
My maternal grandfather was a monster. He should’ve spent many years in prison. My maternal grandmother is possibly descendant from Romanian Jews but maybe not and was also kind of a monster but very skilled at sewing and making crafts. My paternal grandfather was of Sephardic Jewish descent and he was a merchant/contractor, responsible for working for a Mr. Houchens building, planning and hiring for new Houchens grocery stores all across central/southern Kentucky. The only thing I know about my paternal grandmother was that she was Irish, her name was Maymie Maguire, and she died in 1938 from brain cancer at the age of 26. My paternal grandfather’s second wife destroyed all evidence of her––photos, documents, everything. So my paternal grandmother sounded nice but the rest of them were sort of horrible people and I was happy when they died. (Sorry if that’s brutal but you don’t know all the damage they intentionally and eagerly did to my parents.)
I did not know either of my grandfathers; both died before I was born, but I was named after them (Robin and Lee, or Lea in my case). I knew my grandmothers growing up as the strong, independent matriarchs of the family, and with multiple kids on each side (my mom had four brothers and sisters, my dad had thirteen) as the subjects of much fighting between the respective siblings. This usually occurred at holiday gatherings when everyone would accuse everyone else of not doing enough to support their mother, making accusations about who was there for her, and who was not, and sometimes slinging cranberry salad in the process. Both of my grandmothers were kind and loving to me, and the smell and the feel of the places they lived, their quilts and afghans, the shows they watched on television or listened to on the radio, those tiny crystal shoes and soap dishes and porcelain figurines and china plates hung on the wall, all of it stays with me so vividly. As does the motto of one of my grandfathers, that I strive to take as a guideline to life even though I often fail to live up to it: you don’t learn when you’re broadcasting, you only learn when you’re tuning in.
My paternal grandfather died when my dad was eight. He was too young for WWI and too old for WWII. My grandmother was his second wife, twenty years his junior, and she raised all six of their children basically by herself. When her husband died, the oldest of her kids was about 14 and the youngest wasn’t yet in school. I don’t know much about my grandfather except that, for some reason, he refused to ever buy a house, so when he died, my grandmother fought the bank to get them to give her a loan to buy a house. This was in the early ‘60s and she started working nonstop to keep her kids fed and that house in her possession. She has a photographic memory and doesn’t know how to drive. She’s 92 and has become extremely frail, but her brain is as sharp as it ever was. I find it sort of terrifying and sad, that she’s slowly becoming trapped in her own body and is completely aware of how it’s failing. But she was able to skype in to my wedding a few weeks ago, which was awesome. She has tons of grandkids and greatgrandkids and she manages to know them all and send out little cards when birthdays come.
My mom’s dad died when I was five so I never really knew him either. Just flashes of him shouting about something we were breaking or laughing about something we were breaking. My mother talks of him often still, so I’ve come to know him in pieces. He fought briefly in WWII in the Pacific. He caught malaria and was sent out of the frontlines, which saved his life. Shortly after that, his battalion was captured by the Japanese and sent on a Deathmarch, which killed most of the people he served with. After that, he served the rest of the war as a general’s secretary, or some such thing. He came back to the US, married my grandmother, and got an engineering degree. He eventually took over the family business. My grandmother is still alive. She’s also 92, I believe, and is in shockingly good health. She travels and drives and lives happily, I assume. I know very little about her and have never had much interaction with her.
Last weekend we finally set the vase of my grandmother alongside the ashes of my grandfather at Arlington National Cemetery. We’d been waiting for about a year, but there’s a limit on the number of services allowed for any one day. A lot of the WWII vets had been dying recently, and there were all the new Iraq and Afghanistan deaths, so we had to wait our turn. My grandmother lost her own mother in Texas when she was ten, but on my dad’s side, my other grandmother also lost her mother in Mexico at the same age. Her future husband, my paternal grandfather, lost his mother when he was born in 1918. Three out of the four lost their mothers early. Their overwhelmed fathers did what they could. Two of them disappeared. The upshot was that I don’t think any of my grandparents had a super clear idea of how to be a mom or dad by watching their own moms and dads. They never grew up with a sense of having to push back at a previous generation. I just remember them being so grateful to have me around in spite of all the poems and stories I put them in.