A few weeks ago I went to see my friend Timothy Trimingham Lee’s play in the Bermuda Festival. He came back from London to put on a production of the Eugene O’Neill play Long Days Journey into Night, and that it was – a long night was had by all. The original play is four plus hours and Tim was able to expertly cut his version down to three and a half hours, which is quite a feat to do seamlessly. Nevertheless it is a hard ask of a modern audience to watch a play that was written in 1941 and set in one location for four hours. From a critical rather than entertaining perspective it is a towering play, Eugene O’Neill’s best, a thinly veiled autobiography of a family plagued with addiction. Although the play is certainly not modern it’s themes are and they resound for an island where families so often reside together or near each other (like our family) and cannot escape the ravages and temptations of addiction nor can they escape the temptation to argue with one another and life is generally better when the booze stays locked up in the garage outside. That’s where James Tyrone of the play locks up his liquor from his sons, and coincidently my father does the exact same. My dad says he keeps it locked up so the handy men don’t steal it but I think it’s actually so his wife and kids don’t help themselves. For some inexplicable reason he has now moved it out of the garage and put it under his bed. Our family of course comes from a long line of drinkers in the Bermudian tradition of rum swizzle mixed in a washing machine, vodka everyday and champagne only on special occasions. During the play I am sure we were all thinking, “Geesh it’s Friday I could really use a drink.” I made my way right to the bar during intermission, but I think I might have been the only one to know we had another almost two hours to go.
Most of my family attended the play: myself, Chris, mom and dad, Aunt Ann, and the Uncles Michael and Michael. At about 11:30pm the play came to it’s long awaited climax when the drug addicted mother now finally completely insane and wearing her wedding dress, in faded glory, representing all she and the family had lost went on a crazy monologue about the past because everyone knows Mom has to have the last word. When the curtain fell, there was a moment of disbelief that the play had actually ended, for those of us who remained, who hadn’t snuck out at intermission, or made an exit in the second half when it was clear the play was not going to end before last call in the front street bars.
Leaving the theatre there was a heavy cloud following us out, the awkwardness of not being able to say what an amazingly life affirming play, but being haunted by its truths and reflections. Ironically Eugene O’Neill had found solace in Bermuda from his alcoholism and inspiration for this play, perhaps by watching the other ten thousand or whatever the population was then, alcoholics clinging to the rock.
Standing outside waiting for everyone to emerge there was a collective sigh, as everyone wiped their brows, “Phew my family is not as bad as that.” When my mother and father tracked the rest of us down, my aunt laughed and said to my mother,
“I remember a party when you came out in your wedding dress.”
“I remember that too!” I said, imagining her swigging off a champagne bottle, but in reality it was far more sophisticated than that, it was Crystal champagne flutes and the wedding dress was worn to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary.
“It wasn’t just me!” my mother defended.
“All the guests were wearing their wedding dresses,” and they all happened to be swigging champagne too.
Looking at our watches it was after midnight, so instead of turning into pumpkins we went to the after party. I had a glass of champagne, which was followed by a hot flash and I had to go home like Cinderella, as the clock crept farther past midnight and closer to Eva’s waking hour. There is nothing like a toddler to curb your social life.
The next morning I was digging through old pictures for a genealogy project I am undertaking for Eva and I came across a picture from that infamous anniversary party of my mother in her wedding gown. I figured out it must have been in 1989. My mother looks great, my father looks like he needs a makeover but it was the eighties. We already saw in a pervious post what I looked like in the eighties and it wasn’t pretty. I was thinking about how our family had its vague similarities to the Tyrones, but we are really more happy drinkers, although we have all been known to have a monologue or two.
My pride in my familial line was brimming over as I began researching our history but little by little going through my parents’ files I found things that started to chip away at that family image previous generations had done their creative best to create. I have to admit I am still a little disappointed I can’t trace my lineage back to Queen Victoria (she used to have dachshunds like me and sometimes I wonder if she let them kiss her like I do.)
I decided to dig out some old VHS tapes of my grandparents which I had transferred after they died and found one dating back to 1985. Watching it I was instantly transplanted into the mid eighties of suburbia Texas around about the same era as my parent’s twentieth wedding anniversary. While my parents were swilling champagne celebrating their anniversary our relatives in Texas were “letting Jesus save them.” I didn’t know whether to be horrified, entertained or order myself a mid day bloody mary.
My mother has been denying the existence of relatives and Jesus for that matter, for years. In 2009 I was inspired to trace my American lineage with hopes of becoming a Daughter of the American Revolution, and when I asked her about her father’s family tree, her response was:
“They were poor, their parents died young, all the siblings went their own ways and didn’t stay in touch so no one would know anything, and why the hell would you want to be a Daughter of the American Revolution?”
Fast forward to 2014, being under employed I decided to finally complete my side of a photo book Eva’s Great Gran (who is 105 and remembers the Titanic) created for her with pictures of relatives dating back to the 1800s up to the present with the respective family trees etc. Digging through family files, I came across a file with my grandfather’s initials: CTY. Inside was a partial family tree and correspondence from at least two branches of the family descendant from his siblings. I announced its existence to my mother who denied knowledge of it, leaving me wondering who filed it away, but I did recognize the handwriting on the file tab.
My mother has never been interested in her genealogy and I had always put that up to her not being interested in history or the past, as she was more concerned with her current social standing, even if she alternated that concern with threats of arson and moving to Hamilton (only a few miles but a world away.)
After reading the genealogy file on her side of the family and watching the Texas video from 1985 I think there is more to it. Her whole life had been a detour from the past, her family gradually moving East and simultaneously moving up in the world until mom ended up in Bermuda swilling champagne. I remembered a detour we made a few years ago on a family trip to Montana to go “glamping” (glamour camping) at an exclusive ranch resort called Paws Up. My mother’s mother’s family was from Montana so after landing in Billings we detoured to a little town called Harlowton for July 4th celebrations on our way to the resort. Despite the fact that I found it almost impossible to find a vegetable in the entire place, it had the rustic charm of a ghost town. I even met one of my grandmother’s old boyfriends who was able to continue smoking thanks to his handy wheel around oxygen cylinder.
We visited the house on main street where my great grandmother once lived which was now a museum. We went shopping at the local antique stores; we all bought cowboy hats and my father just to be different picked up a bear skin rug that the owner had shot and killed. Next door to the museum was the Graves Hotel, a railroad era establishment, which had long ago been shut down, but perhaps because they heard we were in town the bar inside was still in operation. We bought a few rounds of Pabst Blue Ribbon beers for the locals and they let us share in one of their bar side delicacies: Chicken gizzards, fried to order right next to the beer taps. A few gizzards and beers in, Chris started dancing with the locals, but our happy hour was called abruptly to a close when the meth addict lady with no teeth tried to kiss Chris in the corner. I shook my head sure she would end up revealed as my long lost cousin. To get away from her Chris had to trade his Bermuda t-shirt for his freedom and like true out of towners we high tailed it out of the saloon wishing we had brought our horses. This incident was my husband’s (who is from England) happy initiation to the Wild West and my American roots.
Some of the country must have rubbed off on my father, because when we got to the resort, while the rest of the family were enjoying happy hour at sunset, he crept behind a rock wearing his bear skin rug and scared the hell out of everyone especially the Uncle Michaels who called out for a rifle. Miraculously no one dropped their cocktails and Dad was able to shed the rug before he was shot by his own brother. Let’s just say there is a little bit of country in all of us, and we discovered on that trip how important it was to be able to ride a horse and shoot a gun. A few years later my sister considered naming her daughter Montana, but decided against it after my mother convinced her it wasn’t appropriate.
Back in present day digging through these family files I realized that what I discovered in Montana and what I would discover in tracing the family, is that we are all human, the meth addicted toothless Montana cousin, the God Fearing Texas folk on the VHS tape, and us. In the words of a cousin in her letter to my grandfather in the eighties,
“I started to research my family tree a little over a year ago, and at that time I promised myself that I would do research without judging the actions of our ancestors. Understanding that people live different lives in different generations and circumstances, it was not up to me to judge their actions as right or wrong. In our lines I have found ministers, lots of farmers, a family who sold one of their children, two committed to insane asylums, a family who chased down Indians to retrieve their captured wives, two murders and one suicide. Pretty much what most people find when they research their family trees.”
Most people? Okay. The first thing I thought was that she left out the alcoholics, but with this letter I was hooked on investigating the family tree starting with my mother’s side. Because mothers always have to have the last word, even Derelict Mothers, I will end this blog post with a quote from Mary Tyrone in Long Days Journey Into Night “ The past is the present isn’t it? It’s the future too.”
More on my genealogy in blogs to come, with video clips too.
Photos of the Graves Hotel: