By Richard Ammon
New Years Day 2011

My Aunt Grace turned 95 today, a remarkably long life. Her mind is sharp and her body in reasonably good health, although she complains of not being able to turn the soil in her garden–by hand. Her house is immaculate, her grooming stylish and her memories of her personal history are mostly intact. Occasionally she drives her 1984 Cadillac (17,000 miles) to the local store. She has a daughter and three grandsons who visit occasionally–but not often enough, she says. Her husband died many years ago of Parkinsons.

She is the sole remaining member of my preceding generation, the last witness to my father (her brother) and her four sisters. The sole surviving offspring of her parents whose births were in the 1880’s, a hundred and thirty years ago–well over a century of our family’s history. It feels like a very long time, hinged on this one remarkable lady. (photo right, Grace’s grandfather Frederick)

For me, she is the final personal reach back into ancestral life and times that were hard, fickle and fatal. Her grandfather immigrated from Switzerland in 1883, a poor farmer with little education whose wife took her life shortly after the birth of their sixth child. The hapless widower had to (chose to) put the kids into a children’s home where they were probably abused. Somehow (the family history is vague) two of those children died before the age of ten. A fortunate third one was adopted and was taken away.

The remaining three (Grace’s father, uncle and aunt) survived to adulthood until the beloved uncle was killed in World War I at the age of thirty. Her father Francis and his wife Cora also produced six children (one son, my father, and five daughters, who were, in turn, abused by their father, emotionally and/or physically. What comes around goes around. (photo left, Grace’s father Francis)

After marriage, life for Grace and her siblings was better, for a while. All had children (my cousins) and reunions until my father took his life at 51 and, later, three sisters developed fatal diseases, leaving Grace and one older sister to survive into their late 80’s. Now only Grace has continued, to 95. Four generations (including mine), eight premature deaths, four elder deaths–and the usual family secrets.

No one kept a diary or confessed their inner thoughts. John who went to war wrote the only letters, from boot camp and the battlefront in France. Otherwise the personal history of the family has fallen away chip by chip, one person at a time. (photo right, Grace’s uncle John)

I would like to have known these people. I do know a few stories of love, lust, anger, war heroics, bisexuality–but would they have wanted me to know more? The whole truth? In spite of living comfortable middle-class lives, their shadow memories kept them partially hidden, part of their truth shuttered.

“Why do you want to know these things” an elderly uncle once asked when I probed into the past. I said because this is where I come from, it’s family history. It mattered little to him that I sought a deeper connection with these familiar strangers called family.

Such invisible strings that pull on my life today, still at the age of 70, are part of the fabric, the cloth of my soul. Knowledge of the ‘outside’ world, of history, politics, religion, society shape my dealings with the world; the unseen forces of my family’s ‘private parts’ shape the quality and substance of those dealings, in my relationships, career choices, emotional reactions, aesthetic pursuits, incessant traveling and intellectual attractions, including my deep curiosity about my family. I am always coming from that heritage as I create my present moment.

My past is more than a hierarchy of people’s names, dates of birth-marriage-death, half-told tales, childhood recollections and whispered gossip. In the larger scheme of things, among all the massive scattered ‘data’ out there on the internet and in media and books that enters my brain, understanding my small personal portion of the planet feels like the only reality in a wide deep universe of indifference. (photo left, Grace’s nephew Richard Ammon)

I’d like to unroll Aunt Grace’s 95 years and view the drama she’s seen, heard and felt living with the events and family in her life since 1916.

Happy birthday Grace to you amid all your memories.