Monday, November 05, 2012

Broken Families, Lost Lineages


This decaying picture comes from a photo album my mother made for me about 15 years ago.  Some of the subjects are identified but many are not.  On the right are my father's parents, Helen and Ed Yaryan, and her sister, I think, is on the left.  It was taken in the early years of the 20th century.  I was taught about my family by my mother, who died 10 years ago, and by my father's older sister, my Aunt Margaret, who's been gone even longer.  That generation cared about lineage and were keepers of the flame of family, pasting photos in albums and noting names, making sure the past was kept in memory.  My children seem to have little interest in their ancestors.

These are my grandparents on my mother's side, Carly and Edmund Sheppard.  They were Canadians and my mom was born in Winnipeg but grew up in Montreal and Toronto.  On all of this, including names, my memory is hazy.  Long ago I put together a genealogy for both sides of my family but I think I left it in a box back in California. Now that I've scanned an album's worth of pictures, the legacy of my mother, into my computer, I don't know what to do with it.  My second wife and I were creatures of the age of equality and gave our two children double-barreled last names, a combination of our surnames; both hated it.  When she was young and rebellious, my daughter took a new name, that of her maternal great-grandmother, because she liked the sound of it better.  It's always felt like a personal rejection.  But, hey, what's in a name?

In the spring of 1953, my father took a job in Los Angeles and moved my mother, brother and I across the country.  After we'd gotten settled we drove up to the Bay Area where four of his five siblings were living, and his twin brother Ted came fout from Massachusetts for the unprecedented family reunion.  While growing up in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, I recall that every Christmas a huge box of presents arrived from our western relatives.  I only knew most of the from photographs.  At the reunion in Tiburon, I was the oldest of the many cousins and enjoyed my status.  Aunt Margaret took me under her wing and for the next few years she tutored me, not only in the family's history but also in literature.  She was a high school teacher and nurtured my interest in books and ideas.  She adored her younger twin brothers, particularly Ted, a character actor on Broadway, who shared her artistic and intellectual interests.  There were three more siblings who shared a mother, Frank, Mac and Nan, for my father's father had died young, during the flu epidemic I suspect, and his wife remarried a Mr. Duhme who preceded to squander much of the family fortune during the Florida land boom.

I'm mostly certain that this is my grandfather Ed with his twin boys, born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1908 but who grew up not far from St. Petersburg.  Homer, my father, and Ted were very close and very different.  Dad worked as a life guard and was a lifelong sports fan.  Ted aspired to play the piano. He only learned to play by ear, but was good enough to be the accompanist for Paul Robeson while working as stage manager for a tour of "Othello." That Ted was homosexual was never doubted (except by Frank's wife Mary who had a crush on him) but also never discussed by anyone in the family.  Dad didn't get along with his stepfather and was exiled to military school in New Mexico where he learned to play the drums in a roadhouse band.  Ted was a favorite of his wealthy grandmother in Toledo, and was taken under her wing.

These are my maternal great-grandparents on my mother's father's side,  both Sheppards whose full names I've forgotten.  My main genealogical interest was in exploring the Yaryan side of the family, because it was an unusual surname and probably also because I'm the product of a paternal culture.  The Sheppards migrated to Canada from the British Isles and were no doubt sheepherders. Perhaps the variant spelling was a way to put rural roots behind.  Mom was born Alyce Anita but changed her name to Peggy.  Her father was a successful architect who came to live with us in the early 1950s after his wife died.  Apparently he never knew how to take care him himself and he was helpless without her.  I recall him as a cribbage-playing, pipe-smoking, rather formal and taciturn man who didn't care much for teenagers.  After we moved to California he slowly slid into senility and was sent away to a nearby retirement home.  My one visit there was a horrible experience which put me off aging foreer.

Mom's only sibling was a considerably older brother named Ferris who left home as soon as he could.  Their mother apparently was exceptionally unaffectionate and didn't care much for the role.  Her daughter was sent away to convent school and they were lifelong antagonists.  Ferris led a rather secret life but I recall his son Kenny who came to visit shortly after I was born and helped take care of me, as did my Uncle Ted, when my mother was hospitalized for post-partum depression.  Kenny returned during the war years and I idolized him, but after the war ended we never heard from him again.

Ferris Sheppard, seen here with Kenny, went to California and we visited him once after moving there.  I recall little except that he was bald and everyone was a little tense.  My mother did not stay in touch with him.  Then six years ago I heard from his grandson who just happened to be living in Santa Cruz where I lived.  I got together for lunch with him and his mother, my first cousin, who lived over the hill in San Jose, and I shared a few photos I had of his father and grandparents.  I don't know how Barry found me but we were happy to connect.  Barry is a well-known cellist who has studied with Ravi Shankar and performed with the sitar player's daughter at the concert for George Harrison in London after the Beatle's death.  You can see my cousin in the DVD.

Everyone but my father is in this picture of his five siblings so perhaps he took the photo.  Ted is on the right.  He welcomed me into his small home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when I dropped out of Berkeley to find out who I was, and we traveled around the country together.  Later he moved to San Diego with his long-term partner but after becoming disabled by emphysema he took his own life.  Margaret, standing next to Ted, was married late to a lovely man who also happened to be an alcoholic who used to go on long benders.  They had one son, Ted, who became a master carpenter; he died last year.  In the middle is Mac, a corpsman during the Pacific campaign who was forced to collect dead bodies and broke under the strain.  He was an alcoholic for many years, and after his nurse wife died of cancer, his three daughters were raised by Frank on the far left.  Frank and his Catholic wife could not have children.  He was a real man's man who fished, loved Hemingway, and who kept a copy of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian on his bedside table to rattle Mary. Nan, the only surviving sibling, married a pilot and had a slew of children.  They became fundamental Christians and spoke in tongues.  Ted told a story of attending a meeting with them at their church where most of the worshippers were black, contrasting starkly with the blonde, blue-eyed family.

This is the oldest photo in the collection my mother sent me.  It was probably taken in the 1890s in Toledo where my great-grandfather Homer T. Yaryan, seen on the left, built a room on his mansion to hold seances in order to investigate spiritualism.  He was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was also passionately interested in it and who stayed with my relative when he traveled to America with his family during a respite in the Sherlock Holmes narrative.  I'd seen this photo when I visited the Society of Psychical Research in London where great-grandfather had donated his papers.  Supposedly the bald, mustachioed man is Homer's long dead brother and the large man is the spirit medium.  Homer T. was a successful inventor who heated the sidewalks of Toledo to melt snow.  He also set out to expose the unscrupulous mediums but in the process found some, like this one, whom he believed were genuine.

Here is my family in about 1952.  We lived in western North Carolina where my father sold glue to plywood manufacturers.  My brother Geoff is three years younger and now has just turned 70.  Life was so different back them.  I had a very comfortable middle-class life and a happy childhood.  But I grew up in the 1950s and learned toward becoming a juvenile delinquent. The generation gap was wide.  After I discovered music, art and literature, I found much to criticize in the tastes of my plebeian parents.  They were Republicans and hated Negroes (before they were called blacks).  I wanted to become an actor but I'm sure my father feared I would become a fairy like his twin brother, and forbid it.  He wanted me to finish college because he didn't and thought it limited his employment opportunities.  I wanted to go on the road like Jack Kerouac.  As soon as it was possible (with a couple of false starts), I left home.  Though we stayed in touch and visited over the years, I rarely felt close to them and I think they never knew me very well.  I now know, at the age of 73, that it was my loss.

Geoff and I stay lightly in touch, but our disagreements in the past were so angry (he enjoyed them because he is a lawyer and good at it, but I didn't) that our relationship is somewhat distant. I am presently estranged from my two youngest offspring who took sides with their mother when our marriage collapsed, and who find more to criticize than like about my current choices in life.  My oldest son is responsive but not very curious about my current whereabouts.  I think he remains angry over how I abandoned him and his brother to a crazy woman when they were quite young.  It may have been a contributing cause of my second son's alcoholism which eventually took his life a few years ago.  Strangely enough, probably because of some problems in my own life, I felt closest to him, at least when he was sober.

I'm sure there are many people with worse stories than mine about broken families and lost lineages.  After all, I am a product of privilege, middle class and white.  Here in Thailand, as a farang I am considered "Hi-So" and can wander the halls of the expensive supermalls without embarrassment (poor Thais are very shy about intruding into the shopping palaces of the upper classes).  Much of my experience with family has been disappointing, and I accept my share of responsibility.  Not that there weren't good years, the 1950s out west, the late 1960s in southern California, and the last years of the 21st century in northern California.  But it mostly ended badly with bruised feelings and damaged egos.  Certainly I shared the experiences of my parents whose relationship with their siblings was often rocky.  They seemed to care more about the ties that bind, however, as my mother's loving construction of the photo album shows.  She would be very pleased to know I've made contact with her brother's long lost family.

They say your family has to take you in when no one else will, but that's not particularly true in the west where children are encouraged to be independent of their parents, and old folks are shuffled off to a retirement or nursing home.  Here in Asia, family is worshipped and elders are respected even when they don't deserve it.  I've become "Papa" in Nan's family and I believe they will care for me lovingly whenever the time comes that I no longer can do it all myself.  Of course there are benefits in having a foreign son-in-law, but these are calculations that take place on both sides.  It's sad that the story I've told here about my family, sketchy as it is and no doubt full of errors,  will have no audience in the future.



1 comment:

rich.1 said...

I've been reading your blog for over a year Will. Love the honesty. I often struggle to find this elsewhere.
The fact that many don't appreciate (or want to recognise) your humanity
has to be their issue. I need writing like yours. Enough said. Richard