The Blood of Our Fathers
The bittersweet reality of our ancestors
This past Memorial Day afternoon, I was dusting. My wife was gardening on what was a beautiful day in the Midwest, and I, feeling guilty that I was not helping to trim bushes and toss mulch, tackled the bedroom nightstands, long in need of a wipe down.
We have identical bedside stands, and on mine, much like my wife’s, sits a scattering of small framed photographs. One is a black-and-white taken on my parents’ wedding day, Memorial Day 1953. Every Memorial Day as I and a country remember fallen soldiers, I also think of my mother and father, on a sunny day in late May when my father, on leave from his Army post at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland returned to his hometown to marry his 18-year old bride at the Catholic church on the hill.
The photo shows the bride and groom, her parents, and my father’s mother. My father’s father, my grandfather is missing. He walked out on my grandmother when my father was in high school and never came back. He didn’t have the courage or the respect to put that behind for a day and attend his son’s wedding.
I sat on the bed on a break from the dusting and looked hard again at the old photo.
A few years ago, I discovered through one of those DNA-ancestry programs a bit more about my family. Much of it, to be honest, was confirmation of what I had heard and learned before. Still, I was able to uncover dozens of photographs I had never seen. Documents, too—marriage licenses, death certificates, and newspaper articles. It seems a few of my ancestors had been in the news—a great grandfather who had played piano for the silent movies, a great uncle who had been a minor county politician.
But what stuck with me most on Memorial Day was the man missing from that wedding-day photo. His absence said more than his presence ever could have. Imagine, getting married and your father simply doesn’t show up. Imagine my grandmother on that day. And my maternal grandfather, who is in the photo, the big man to the left had his own demons. He became a troubled and destructive alcoholic in his later years.
The wedding photo sent me back to the ancestry photos I had discovered months before—those solemn faces, the quaint clothing, the staged and stoic stances. I stared again into the eyes of family members, wondering why I was obliged to find them fascinating. We have come to see our forefathers as people we should revere. But why would I revere my father’s father? Why wouldn’t I pity my grandfather’s disease, and be saddened by what his drinking did to the family? And in the other photos, along with what surely was good in those people, wasn’t there also trouble, hurt, and sadness?
One particular photo of the Irish side of my family—the Dugans—will forever connect. It’s a large family photograph, all the relatives squeezed together in the parlor of a home, and in the back row to the right is Lawrence Dugan, my great grandfather. When I first saw the photograph, it shook me, the resemblance uncanny. He was me. I am him. The same shape of the head, the same lips, the same eyes. I wondered then, and again as I looked at it on Memorial Day, was he a happy man? Was he a good man?
When I was younger, much of this meant little to me. Where my ancestors had come from, why they had arrived in America, where they worked and lived, what kind of parents they were to their children was of no concern to me. My mother had told me a few stories and some had been rather interesting, especially the one about her English-born great grandfather who had worked at the stables at the Queen’s summer home on the Isle of Wight, and about my grandfather at the age of 12, carrying bricks of ice up long flights of stairs. The little “iceman.” But for me, as a young man, I had more to consider living in the present, not the past.
Now, much of how I feel about bloodlines has changed. I’m certain this has to do with aging, considering where you have been and where it all started, even in the years before you were born, is natural. In time you realize that every one of those people in those old photos, has something to do with you. The good and the bad of you. The tricks and the traits. The beautiful and the ugly. All of it carried through the generations. In more ways than I know, I am who they have been.
Before returning the photo of my parents’ wedding day to the now dustless nightstand, I thought again about my father, pictured there in his white jacket and offering a wide smile to the world. How bittersweet that day must have been. How it must have shaped him for the rest of his life. And how—through the blood of all the fathers before me—that day, all the joy and sorrow of it—had shaped me, too.