“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” — James Baldwin
Those who despise religion and consider it one of the great evils of humanity will no doubt point to my childhood and rage about abuse, cults and brainwashing. Many of the secular friends I have now would probably consider my parents’ religious indoctrination of me and my brother borderline criminal activity. But in so doing they would be missing the much larger context of my life.
My parents grew up in the 1950s and 60s, a time on which many look back and romanticize. Sure, life was simpler back then. But this was also a time in America before it was ok to question authority — whether political, religious or parental; when women were still considered unqualified to do much of anything outside the home. My mom and dad both grew up in large families with few resources, violent alcoholic fathers, and mothers who struggled to support their children when there weren’t a lot of options for them to do so.
My dad’s family are Irish and Polish Catholics. My paternal grandfather was a hard-drinking, violent philanderer who gave my grandmother nine children and often left her to raise them while he went to work at jobs that kept him away for months at a time. They grew up in Washington and Alaska, with my grandfather working as a salmon fisherman and doing other kinds of manual labor. This was a Lord of the Flies situation — and my dad’s childhood was full of instability, abuse, poverty and completely unrestrained boyhood shenanigans.
Both sides of my family are riddled with addiction, alcoholism, tragedy and abuse but dad’s side was exponentially more tragic. Two of my aunts died as teenagers in two separate drunk driving accidents each within a day of each other. Three of my dad’s other siblings have fought serious drug and alcohol addiction for as long as I’ve been alive. One of my uncles just disappeared in 90s (we think it was a boating accident).
My paternal grandmother was a lovely woman with brilliant green eyes and a jubilant smile. In the grand tradition of Irish Catholic women, she stayed married to my grandfather even when most other sane women would have left; mainly because of her strong Catholic faith and belief that her wedding vows were a sacrament. But also, let’s face it, there weren’t a lot of other options for an uneducated mother of nine in the 1950s.
Once her kids were grown, she put herself through school and became a nurse which was her occupation until she retired. Eventually, my grandfather cleaned up his act and quit drinking completely. He became a devoted husband and golfing partner to my grandmother, eventually caring for her in hospice until she passed away from cancer in 2002.Then he struggled to live alone, becoming depressed and despondent. He died just a few short years after she did.
What I remember about my grandparents’ house is a big painting of Catholic Jesus and photos of their nine kids and multitudinous grandchildren on the walls. I remember visiting them as a kid, sitting in their living room all morning and watching Good Morning America while they drank pots of coffee and smoked cigarettes.
The last time I talked to my grandfather, he said, “You know, the first 30 years of marriage to your grandmother were pretty tough. But I think we did ok the next 30.” It made me realize just how long they’d been together — almost twice as long as I’d been alive. I guess it’s never too late for people to change.
My mother’s side of the family descended from Missouri Lutherans and had migrated to the northwest before my mom was born. My maternal grandmother had six children and raised them Washington state. She was tall and blue-eyed, with a powerful stare.
I mostly remember the small trailer that she lived in for the last few decades of her life. It was filled with all kinds of random knick-knacks and memorabilia from years gone by. She had cookie tins full of thousands of buttons of every color, shape and size, and I used to love to sort them. She constantly had Big Band music playing from a huge stereo in the living room, only shutting it off when it was time for her soap operas. She also smoked for most of her life and died of cancer in the 90s.
I never knew my maternal grandfather. I only know that had fought in WWII at the Battle of the Bulge, and came back a broken man. Eventually the drinking and abusiveness was too much for my grandmother and they divorced. She never remarried. Instead, she raised all six kids by herself, working whatever jobs she could.
Grandma never went to college, and they were poor. But she was a strong Protestant woman who had grown up during the Great Depression, and she knew how to survive and thrive on very little. She made breakfast, lunch and dinner for her kids each day; made clothes for them, and was a strong disciplinarian. Still, divorce wasn’t common in the 60s and there was a stigma to being a divorcee that transferred to the kids, too. There simply weren’t the same kinds of government and educational resources for women and kids that we have today. Despite being a smart girl who liked school, my mom had a rebellious streak, and a sense of adventure. By the time she met my dad she was heavily into the counterculture.
When they met as young adults, my parents were rambling into the 1970s as the kind of hippies who were far more interested in partying than protesting. They each had more than their fair share of personal demons (which I don’t feel is my place to divulge) and were self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, looking for something to believe in. No reasonable person in their right minds would have considered their relationship a good idea. But they saw something in each other that made them want to commit. For my part, I’m glad they did.
When she got pregnant with me, something changed in my mom. She wanted a better life for me than the life she was living at the time, and she started seeking. After marrying into my dad’s family, mom tried to assimilate with them. She’d converted to Catholicism and I was baptized in the church.
Within a year after I was born and baptized my dad left us in Washington and moved to Nevada to ‘find work’. The reality of being married and finding himself with an infant daughter and a wife who wanted him to get a regular job and settle down was overwhelming. He never had a strong role model for how to be a husband and a father, and his greatest fear was revisiting the tragedies of his childhood on his own family. I know this because he has told me repeatedly over the years that one of his greatest motivations for becoming a Jehovah’s Witness and raising me and my brother that way was because he felt it was the best way to protect us from the things he was exposed to as a child.
But as a young man still struggling with addiction and self-worth, he ran away to Nevada, leaving my mom and me with his family in Washington. Eventually, my grandfather strong-armed him into coming back to get us.
Once the three of us were in Nevada things reached a boiling point. My dad was engaged in truly self-destructive behavior. My mom was isolated, away from her family and had a colicky baby. They were not just poor — they were destitute, living in the slums amongst brothels and bars. I went back years later and visited that place. It was sobering to know that anyone could live that way, much less my own family.
Then two things happened that changed the course of our lives.
While living in Nevada a Jehovah’s Witness neighbor began talking to my mom about her faith and the urgency of the times in which they were living. It was 1975 and mom agreed to begin a bible study course based on the Witnesses’ own New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures and a Watchtower publication called The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life. Through this course my mom learned of God’s plan to cleanse the earth from evil and allow faithful humans to return to our original purpose — living in a peaceful garden-like world free from sin. The promise of a better world for herself and her new daughter, coupled with an opportunity to learn and improve herself through constant study was exactly what she needed, and she was baptized within the year.
My dad, however, was a harder sell. He carried on with his drinking and gambling and squandering money while my mom began reading the bible daily, attending meetings with the Witnesses three times a week and going door-to-door. But she was determined to keep her marriage together, and that meant bringing him along through Armageddon. She was persistent and he succumbed to the promise of God’s forgiveness and the prospect of eternal life and was baptized later that year. This was his chance to right the wrongs of his past, yes, but also to become the man that God intended him to be. He truly believed that, and from what I can tell, he still does.
The second thing that drastically changed our lives at this point was that my dad had an opportunity to learn a trade. From Nevada, he heard the call: there was a new industry taking off in California and they needed skilled workers. Training was available.
We moved to Santa Clara, California and my father became an electronics technician working for a company making semiconductors. Silicon Valley in the last part of the 1970s was a magical place. Reformed hippies like my parents, technology nerds and lots of immigrants made for a diverse, quirky culture.