Sudden violent death creates concentric ripples which spread ever wider washing and crashing over the immediate family on to extended family, friends, and colleagues. Those ripples ebb back to the deceased’s family. Sometimes, what rolls back is sympathy and genuine compassion. In other instances, a dangerous rip tide threatens to pull the family back into gothic familial deep water where the recently aggrieved find themselves struggling to maintain their footing and keep from drowning in those passive aggressive human voices whose motives are more self-centered than benevolent, more angry than comforting.
The men from my dad’s side of the family met each Thanksgiving weekend at a hunting cabin in Pickens County, Alabama. It is in actuality an old farm house adjacent to the Tombigbee River surrounded by grazing land for cattle and a combination of pulp and hard wood trees unique to the south. What started as a weekend of hunting and drinking two generations prior was now an occasion for the patriarchal Gunn family to meet, enjoy supposed fellowship, watch football, talk politics, and share a few meals—the drunken part of the weekend long banished once my grandfather became the family head. He and his eldest son, my uncle, devoutly subscribed to fundamental Christianity of the hair shirt variety so drunkenness was soon off the weekend’s agenda.
My history with my dad’s side of the family was strained at best due in large part to events prior to my birth. My grandfather expected his children to remain close in proximity and obedient to his will even in adulthood. Most of my aunts and uncles never left Benton, Kentucky a rural western Kentucky town that remained segregated as late as the 1980s which was the last time I had any reason to visit where they were born and either entered into the family insurance business or started other business ventures funded with grandfather’s wealth. Though his parents pushed dad to take up medicine as a career, I always felt they wanted him to return home to practice after meeting the right woman (meaning one they approved), marry, and live their idea of an idyllic Christian American lifestyle.
While an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, my dad met my mom. It was an odd relationship bordering on taboo in that they were distantly related and even shared the same last name. As if out of some stereotypical Appalachian folk tale, their father’s knew each other, had grown up together in rural Tennessee, and dad’s grandfather and father fucked my mom’s dad in a business deal which haunted my mom’s dad and tainted his relationship with his cousin/future in law for the rest of his life. I do not know when the respective parents found out about the illicit relationship, but I know neither side approved initially. My mom had to tell her parents when she found herself pregnant in the late 60s with what was to be my older brother. Her father, looking out for his daughter’s welfare, concerned what people would say (about the relationship generally and a child out of wedlock specifically), and distrustful of the paternal half of the relationship, offered her a way out of the pregnancy. Though abortion was illegal, he knew people and offered to arrange one for his young pregnant daughter to save her the embarrassment of single motherhood in 1968 and to prevent a stigmatized union with a family he strongly mistrusted.
Ultimately, mom and dad married and opted to have Chuckie. My mom’s parents accepted the marriage and though dad’s family feigned happiness, looking at how events developed over the years, I believe they never accepted or supported the marriage and looked on their children—and future grandchildren–as abominations. When my older brother died in a car crash as an infant, I think dad’s family secretly hoped it would end the shameful marriage that compromised their beliefs and socially embarrassed them. I also believe they felt it was the result of some divine justice for a sinful relationship. Chuckie’s death, though, kept my parents together, and as my dad finished medical school at the University of Kentucky, I was born in the fall of 1970.
After entering into what his parents considered an incestuous relationship, dad broke the unwritten family code by moving his family out of Kentucky via Nashville, TN to south Alabama upon completion of his residency at Vanderbilt University Hospital in 1977. For an old southern patriarch with deep religious convictions, this decision, I believe, solidified the rift between son and father: a rift my sister and I would suffer though we had no part in its creation but because we were the embodiments of dad’s sin and betrayal.
The Faulknerian twists of my family took years to unravel and now that most of the principals are gone, I still have only a fraction of what I can only describe as something resembling understanding; yet, I realized by early adolescence I wanted limited interaction with my paternal grandparents. After turning away from their faith at an early age and in light of their distance toward my sister and I, my summer visits stopped just before I turned 13 leaving the Thanksgiving get away my only regular contact.
By the Thanksgiving trip of 1992, I attended college in Birmingham and was dating a woman who asked that I spend the holidays with her family. Dad called me on Monday Thanksgiving week and asked that I go with him to the cabin. I refused and told him I had plans, adding that I did not want to see those people (his family) anyway. He asked again to the point of telling me I was going whether I liked it or not. Our relationship was strained, at best, since he and my mom divorced when I was 13, but we were making in roads toward piecing it back together. Due to his persistence and despite my reservations, I agreed to meet him in Aliceville with the intention of spending the long weekend with his family.
This year’s trip was mere days after Clinton defeated Bush 41 and with that victory came the hope that 12 years of harsh, trickle down conservatism was at an end. Conservatives nationwide were shell shocked and angry to the point of histrionics similar to what our current president experiences. Anti-Clinton propaganda and conspiracy theories were rampant even before he took office. The country was seriously divided then—almost foretelling how it is now, and the anti-big government conspiracy theorists’ tales only heightened a pejorative Clintonmania. In this atmosphere, my dad and I drove up to the cabin where our bathed in blood Christian Conservative moral majority relatives waited.
The first night went well enough. Sons, brothers, and cousins exchanged some slightly barbed jabs but the conversations remained civil enough, and we shared some laughs. I went to bed that first night thinking maybe I misjudged my relatives. It had been a year since I last saw them, and I thought this trip could be different.
By lunch, the next day, I could feel antipathy as clearly as I could smell the beginnings of Thanksgiving dinner—that recognizable mix of celery, carrots, and onion. I noticed my dad mixing a drink early from the back of his car, and thought how odd that a 47 year old man had to hide a mixed drink, and there was palpable disapproval in the air. It was not necessarily disapproval of the drink, or the current political developments, but a morally superiority that tinted and tainted the air as the Jack Daniels darkened the water in my dad’s glass.
I stayed outside most of the afternoon avoiding the heated political debate going on indoors. As night came on, the conversation grew louder and more heated. I walked back into the cabin where my dad was seated in a recliner obviously buzzed if not just plain drunk. His father and brother were on his left, and his cousin and brother-in-law were on his right. It looked as though he was holding court, but besieged on all sides. Everyone around dad described how Clinton would destroy the country, how more regulation would kill small business, and how a pro-baby killing president would ensure the country’s damnation.
I realized it was time to leave as voices got louder and it looked as though things might get physical. I remember my dad saying something derogatory about the Pope, at which point his brother had heard enough. Though he was no Papist, my dad’s defense of abortion outraged my uncle. As I continued to pack, he approached my father as though he intended to hit him. There existed between them an odd brotherly rivalry which bordered on sadism. Dad had polio as a child which limited and stunted his physical development and also, I think, impacted the brothers’ relationship. Instead of violence, he looked into his brother’s eyes with hatred and told him, “if you keep talking this way, there will be no one to bury you.” I was done at this point, told my dad we were leaving, and we spent the night in a hotel away from the abuses of his closed minded family.
Four months later, an anti-abortion protester named Michael Griffin assassinated my father. According to dad’s side of the family, they were unaware he performed abortions though he performed them for the better part of two decades in part or exclusively. After years considering his motives and silence, I think I finally have some degree of understanding. If his family was willing to write him off over a presidential candidate and some offhand remarks about the pope, then they clearly would have disowned and damned him to hell for murdering babies. He hid the abortion portion of his career, not out of shame or fear, but as some perverse familial life preserver. He wanted and needed that familial connection and feared he would lose it if his family knew the truth. Ironically, they disowned him over vagaries as opposed to the issue that took his life.
He never spoke to or saw his family after that November night in Aliceville. Though my mom and dad had long ago divorced and he was remarried, he opted to spend his last Christmas with us at my maternal grandmother’s house in Tennessee. Whether he was too proud to call his brother and father, or whether pride held back their hand makes little difference: he was dead to them and they to him.
My first conversation with any of my dad’s family was later in the afternoon of 10 March 1993 when my uncle called to ostensibly see how we fared. I do not remember him expressing any sympathy for the loss; rather, he wanted to tell me how we (meaning he) would arrange the funeral. He wanted to control all arrangements and return the prodigal son, in body only, to his old Kentucky home. I was initially dumbfounded that my uncle, the supposed adult in the room, was more concerned about a dead body than his niece and nephew. In his mind, he knew best, I was a child, and I should simply obey. In clear terms I told my uncle to fuck himself, that we had things under control, welcomed him, as well as the rest of the family, to the funeral we planned, and asked that he kindly leave us alone unless he had some honest assistance or sympathy to offer.
We buried dad during the worst winter storm in recent southern history. It was in mid-March less than two weeks prior to spring’s beginning, but Winter Storm ’93, as the media dubbed it, hung coldly over the funeral and attendant proceedings. Though my dad’s parents attended, they refused to sit with the family in the chapel of Cortner’s Funeral Home in Winchester, Tennessee—an antebellum home converted into a funeral parlor whose walls are as familiar to me as a childhood home given my 40 year history of funerals in that discomforting comfortable ritual death house. Moreover, they did not attend any of the mandatory post burial potlucks which may or may not be uniquely southern. Instead, they sent two of my cousins as emissaries seeking information but providing little. They ensured my sister and I need not worry, our grandfather had our interests at heart, and he would see we were protected (she was 17 and I was 22). Of course, these entreaties proved false.
The family rift which began as a small fissure before my birth evolved into an unbridgeable canyon in death. A murder which should have strengthened family ties unalterably crushed what little connection remained. I never had any meaningful exchanges with my father’s side of the family after that November night in 1992.
Almost 150 years ago, two brothers from the Gunn family donned uniforms: one was grey and the other was blue. Family lore holds at their last meeting they crossed swords, turned, and walked away never seeing each other again. Twenty years ago, in a somewhat devalued sense, history repeated rendering a family into bits due to one brother’s adherence to outdated traditionalism and religious fundamentalism while the other looked forward toward equality and inclusion. They did not realize at the time, though perhaps they should have, that the future was murder. Dad’s politically and religiously motivated murder perfectly reflects the harsh and unbreachable polar divide which is increasingly entrenched and present in our country today. Micro recapitulates macro on occasion does it not?
My children know their uncles, aunts, and cousins as phantoms, if at all—their great grandmother and father died long ago. Like me, they must live with the repercussions of choices and actions which occurred well before their births. While my eldest once expressed interest in meeting the family he’s never known, my youngest may not even know they exist. Surely, I bear responsibility for their ignorance; however, I selfishly never pursued reconciliation though there have been overtures. Unfortunately, I doubt the sincerity of such invitations and after 20 years of solitude from those who were my family, I choose exile over guilt riddled reconciliation. It is not an exile of hatred but of indifference which is admittedly worse I suppose.
Photo from Valerie licensed under Creative Commons