During the last couple of weeks that I’ve been moving, I’ve found all kinds of random stuff including the following:
A cassette tape of assorted music from college,
Notes from my child’s teacher from when she was in preschool (#unwilling to compromise),
A book I wrote about a snake when I was in 5th grade,
notes I took in dad’s appointments with his neurologist,
Post it notes with prayers written from 13-14 years ago that are nothing like the words I use to pray today.
Life is full of change. All of the time. And I believe God is good all the time.
But so many things happen in this life that are terrible and lovely and in between. And so many of these things are things we cannot control.
When I was a little girl, I used to sit on my mom’s lap and ask her, “Why does God allow bad stuff to happen to us? Why does God let people hurt each other?” And she said, “Because we have free will.”
I sat and thought on these words: FREE WILL. How beautiful freedom is. And yet, how ugly free will can be when we hurt others by our choices.
Not too long ago my uncle shared some letters with our family that he had received from a distant relative which provided details about my Grandpa Whitehead’s life (my dad’s father). These details were startling to me. The letters demonstrated that even though I knew him so well and loved him so much and was LOVED so well by him, I did not know what he had experienced in his life.
I didn’t know that first he was one person and then another and another, and I imagine he had to do a lot of redefining and reimagining throughout the seventy-some years he was alive.
My Grandpa was a big part of my life up until his death when I was 9 years old. When we went to his house, he held me in his rocking chair, doted on me, cooked for me, showed me all his plants, took me to his work shop in his shed, and let me climb up the cherry tree in the back yard. I watched him smoke cigarettes and tap them gently into delicate ash trays from Hawaii, and when I gave him hugs and kisses I was comforted by this smell of cigarette smoke in his beard.
When I would tell stories, he listened intently. When he paid attention to my brother, I hid under a table and pouted until he picked me up and carried me around while giving us both attention.
When my parents disciplined me, he would take my hand and comfort me. My mom and dad said he spoiled me, but all I remember is his unconditional love.
And so it surprised me to learn that this same man had so much pain and tragedy in his life. Unlike my other grandfather who loved to tell me stories about his childhood, Grandpa Whitehead said nothing. I kind of remember asking things and only receiving vague answers.
And then I read the letters my uncle showed us.
I had been told that Grandpa had been an orphan, but found out that wasn’t exactly true. His mother tried to drown him when he was a baby. She may have had post partum depression, but back in 1912, people didn’t know what that was. So they locked up Cordelia Whitehead (I think that was her name) into a mental institution, while baby Grandpa survived.
Grandpa had two older siblings. Those siblings stayed with the father. But grandpa, since he was a baby and his dad felt overwhelmed at the prospect of parenting him, was sent away to live with different random people. Sometimes family members. Sometimes friends of the family. He was a baby that was “farmed out.” No real home. Just random people raised him. The letter tried to make it sound like these people loved him and stuff. But if they loved him, why did they keep giving him away and passing him around, I wondered. And it made it sound like Grandpa was the most helpful person in the world, always ready to do chores, despite all the tragedy in his young life.
When he was first sent away as a baby, his father sent him with a little treasure chest of sorts that had all of his precious items–a baby blanket, photos of his parents and siblings, trinkets and small toys. The chest was his identity of sorts–it showed where he came from. That he was once loved and cared for. Every time he was sent to live with a new family, the chest followed him. And then one day there was a flood in the home he was staying in. Seems like Grandpa may have been between the ages of 3-5 at this time, and his treasure chest and items in it became flooded with water and were ruined. Grandpa ran to the chest, clinging to it, devastated. Everything he had-his whole identity-was in that chest. And now it was gone.
At some point, Grandpa’s father, who was a coal miner, died in an explosion in the mine. So Grandpa was then reunited with his older siblings and they were sent away to live together with another family member. This went on and on, and Grandpa started to see that love from others could be earned by becoming a hard worker. So he stopped going to school after 7th grade and just worked.
Grandpa met my grandmother in Hawaii. He moved there to work for the army on a base. He met this lovely, outgoing, independent and strong woman and they got married. I think they worked well as a couple because they respected each other’s way of being. I don’t ever remember them arguing, but when Grandma started nagging him, he would begin to whistle. Whistling was his way of dealing with conflict.
My dad says Grandpa was a strict but loving father who had high expectations for good behavior. I never saw this side of my grandpa. I only saw the unconditional love he showed for his family. He loved all his grandchildren in ways that I can’t even articulate but only to say he was so soft with all of us, and present in every moment we shared with him.
And so as I sit here tonight, surrounded by these different random snapshots of my life that I found while moving, I think about my grandpa. And how he weirdly did something that he had no model for. He had no traditional family. Consistency was a stranger to him. Fathering and mothering were foreign experiences to him.
He never had a real father and yet became one.
He never knew his mom and yet knew what it meant to be a family.
He never received consistency and yet knew how to provide it.
He experienced the trauma of separation and near drowning as an infant and yet knew how to love babies so well.
This is the miracle that we can count on. That we can become and become again. That we can change and own experiences without letting them own us.
I think about how while I love the person I used to be, I am thankful that I am no longer her. I also found my wedding photo album when I was moving. I wanted to trash it, because it no longer represents who I am. But then I paused and decided to give it to Aliana.
I appeared in the doorway of her new bedroom with it in my hand.
“I want you to have this,” I said. “I want you to know that this is who we once were–your father and I. And that although you don’t remember, you were made in love.”
She looked at me like this:
but then took the album.
This marriage that also caused me deep pain also had love. How true. And yet how strange.
I want to hear more of these stories. I want to know about those among us who became a new person, again and again. People who chose to be better instead of bitter. People who were bitter and then better. People who were lost and then found. These are the stories that connect us to each other during times of tragedy.
These are the stories that help us know that there are tragedies and miracles and that YES there is FREE WILL but what that also means is that we have the choice to change despite what has happened to us or what choices we made in our past.
I wrote all of these words today because my heart was heavy. So share your stories with me, too. I need them.