What’s in a word?
When most people think about “grandmother”, the words that come to mind are usually those of comfort. But not always. Sometimes, it is drama and prevarication — at least for me.
A little background pertinent to the story:
My maternal grandmother was born in Los Angeles to well-established, upper middle-class parents who could afford to indulge her dreams of singing and acting and being a star.
Correction: her mother was against such tomfoolery. A former suffragette, then single mother (oops, a divorce), with a career and a very pragmatic view of American life, she did not approve of my grandmother’s dreams of stardom. Nevertheless, my grandmother enrolled in college, studying theater arts.
By the time I was born and was old enough to know her, she had been married over twenty-five years, been pregnant thirteen times, and had seven children who survived birth and infancy. On the outside she was a busy mother with many mouths to feed. On the inside, she was still the star awaiting a stage.
She indulged her acting needs in various ways, but the one I became familiar with was story telling. Many of these stories were about the family. All of us would sit in rapt attention whenever she was in the mood for storytelling. And some of the stories were incredible. Our family history was amazing.
Sadly, little of what she told us was true.
I divide her lies into two types: Personal and Historical.
The bulk of my grandmother’s lies were personal, mostly about herself and her exploits. They were not so much outright lies as exaggerations about how much taller or tanner or athletic she was than others, or how she played tennis with movies stars, or she how sang with at this or that famous singer at this or that venue. Not everything was lie. There are grains of truth in each story. But every story was so embellished that it is impossible to really know the details unless someone has a counter-story. Whatever the case, when I first met her, she was the de facto commander of the family narrative.
I have since learned that control of the narrative is essential for the maintenance of both truth and lies.
Her other lies are historical and reflect both the national control of the cultural narrative and the insidious cultural appropriation allowed by that control.
Native American Roots
The first time I heard her spin this yarn, she told us she was descended from members of the Penobscot tribe. This sounded reasonable. Her family first arrived in the colonies in the 1630s and somehow ended up in what is now Maine (formerly Penobscot lands).
The next time she spun that yarn she told us that our “Indian blood” had come from our grandfather’s side, attributing it to the Sioux because he was born in the Dakotas and his family had long traded with the Sioux. This would have seemed more plausible if our grandfather had validated the story. But he was mute whenever it came to her stories.
Another time, there was a Canadian twist to the story, a border crossing, and lots of drama that ended with an adoption in what is now Nebraska. This seemed plausible because there was a baby adopted from Canada, the circumstances unknown, from whom my grandfather descends.
None of these stories were true. Why did she tell them? What was in it for her?
I believe that she did this partly for the sheer entertainment it brought her. But those same stories were being told by white people across the country. Many of the people I know who claim colonial roots (pre-1776) also claim to have Native American roots. (Some people claimed such for nefarious reaons).
These stories most often originated in the 20th century as America first started to grapple with the consequences of its past. Claiming native ancestors also distances one from any guilt one might feel about genocide.
It has not always been cool to claim indigenous roots. At times it was outright dangerous. I once offended a distant relative when I asked him about native roots. He was having none of it.
During the 1960’s, many people (v. ‘hippies’) donned “native” attire, wearing leather moccasins and fringed vests, headbands and feathers, because they wanted to be “one with nature”. It was now uber-cool to make the claim. After all, the indigenous population was so noble, so in snyc with nature, so pure. We needed to more like them.
Claims of having “native blood” exploded in the 60s and 70s, especially after the publication of Dee Brown’s book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Americans were claiming kinship. My grandmother was among them, having already created her own stories, which fit right into the “movement”.
These fabricated stories also gave family members permission to rail against the government and its policies and to join movements and to get high and cavort in the forest in a fit of interpretive dance. Yes, I am making fun of all this because the juxtaposition of genocidal history and hippies appropriating indigenous cultural symbols calls for it. While the hippie movement did spawn a lot of great changes in public policies, not much changed for Native Americans. But the headcount of Americans claiming descent from indigenous ancestors exploded.
Zooming out from my grandmother’s myopic view of history, it is possible to see the sweep of this cultural phenomenon. Even after the Warren debacle, these stories persist. And they will, until that DNA swab is sent off and comes back undeniably European (v. Northern Europe).
Sure, a story is just a story, who can it hurt? Stories can indeed hurt because the truth and the pain of history have become folksy anecdotes or, worse, the personal narratives of those whose ancestors were the perpetrators, not the victims.
Imagine. Imagine who has been making policy all these years. Imagine who is telling whom how and what to feel.
The Irish Catholic myth
We were raised to believe that we were Irish Catholic, the kind treated brutally by the English and disparaged in much of America.
This will seem very meh to most Americans.
However, when this myth was created by my grandmother, she was poking a finger into the eyes of her very waspy upper-class family. If her Puritan ancestors in the Massachusetts colony had encountered a Catholic, they probably would have burned the papsist at the stake. Sometimes I think they would have eaten them. They certainly would not have married them. At the time of my grandparent’s marriage, being Irish Catholic was not cool, especially not with upper middle class dyed in the wool protestants. Nope. The Irish, like the indigenous peoples, were thought to be “savage” and prone to alcoholism.
My grandfather, who has a Gaelic surname, was not Irish Catholic. He was Scots Quaker. She, by her own choice and conversion, made him into the Irish Catholic that she presented to her family (they were not pleased) and later to us. Ah, so American: The Puritan-Quaker cocktail with a fake Irish Catholic chaser. Brilliant.
The Russian Jew myth
This is a complicated yarn that contains many threads of truth, some misdirection, and outright lies.
My grandmother’s great uncles were born in Russia. True. Her grandfather was a British wool trader. True. The family once resided in Moscow. True. The family were Jewish. Not true.
Her grandmother (born in Yorkshire, England) did in fact speak a smattering of Russian at a time when, in Los Angeles, hundreds of Russian expats fleeing the Communist revolution arrived. Naturally, because they were mostly merchants and monarchists and intellectuals, they gravitated towards the upper classes and to the theater and intellectual communities. She in fact did know some of them. One of them, a woman from St. Petersburg who ran a tearoom, did in fact try to poison my grandmother because she wanted my grandfather for herself. That is a great story, and it is true. But how it morphed into her having Russian Jewish roots is beyond my understanding.
Everyone does this
I was talking to an historian friend of mine about this habit my grandmother had of taking a truth and turning it into a beautiful lie. According to her, the stories my grandmother told are no surprise at all. She said that during the Victorian period, storytelling and mythmaking were prevalent parlor games, and the parlor was the center of the home well into the 1940s.
The stories American families told themsleves while lounging in their parlors sometimes took root, and imaginary ancestors, all without names, got branches on family trees. Such stories were also a way to distinguish the “native born” from later European immigrants, like the Irish, Germans, Czechs, Italians, and Poles, whom they looked upon as coarse and unsavory and, quite frankly, beneath them.
But with my grandmother, it seems that she very much wanted to be part of some group that faced discrimination and suspicion. It was as if she needed that grandiose gesture of taking on the burdens of others, a penance that encumbered her in no way at all yet cleansed her of any guilt she might have been feeling. The white savior myth. Misplaced empathy that mitigated the ugly truths.
In a way, I’m glad she lied like she did because it made me more vigilant when listening to stories that people tell, especially when it comes to American history, race, and politics. Many people in my family still cling to these stories and don’t want to let go. The stories have become a part of them and they are unwilling to undergo an honest cultural self-examination. My poking around in their closets makes them uncomfortable.
When my parents married, my father’s family were recent immigrants. This gave my grandmother plenty of new material to draw from. But by then, it was the civil rights movement, and that was something she never talked about.
She did not try to take on the burden of the slave trade, or slavery, and did not associate herself or her ancestors with southern history — at all. It was if none of that had happened. Her America did not include the rebel states. She had visited only one or two of those states, living in one after retirement. She ignored the rest of the region and its problematic history as if it none of its history had ever happened. If confronted with questions regarding the history of slavery in America, she would just wave it all away. She once told me that it was too ugly to discuss. So, no discussion. Again, a muteness that only makes things worse.
Great American Myths
In a nutshell, the lies my grandmother told me are emblematic of American origin myths and of the control of the American narrative. Her silence on the history of slavery and reconstruction reflects the American way of not seeing hard truths and avoiding difficult topics. But waving things away fixes nothing and allows others to take control of the narrative, and all too often those who do are white supremists and intolerant religious leaders.
We as a nation have so successfully refused to see the real truth that even to this day the death of a black person at the hands of police engenders the knee-jerk reaction that the death was somehow the fault of the dead person because, you know, criminals, and probably the person somehow deserved to die that day. As much as we might like to use Truth to pull at that thread of the American fabric, we dare not pull too hard for fear that the whole thing will unravel.
I loved my grandmother. She had many great qualities. And her stories were entertaining. But even as a child I knew that something wasn’t quite right, that important details were missing, that some things were outright lies. I sometimes wonder, if my grandmother were alive today, how she would respond to the last decade of American life. But I don’t wonder for too long. She would have waved it away.