Grandma’s Closet and the Legacy of Dirty Little Secrets

I am envisioning a long red ancestral thread that ties me to my immediate family; my brothers and sisters and my nieces and nephews. I am inextricably tied to my parents and my grandparents; then to their parents and the mothers and fathers of my great grandparents, and so on. The latter are souls whose names I have never heard and whose stories are lost to the ages, but they live in me and run down to me through this sacred and profane red thread.

The thread is not the proverbial golden thread, and there is no liquid blue or radiant yellow. This blood red thread is stained by that sticky substance that flows in an unending stream back through a thousand generations, and it carries the gifts and the talents and the treasures of the past all mixed up with the curses and the offenses and the genocides endured by and perpetrated by my ancestors.

I understand that Sigmund Freud was the first to attempt to draw a map of the human psyche. I wonder if he was inadvertently attempting a map of the soul, and today I don’t know where the psyche ends and the soul begins. And it is interesting to me that Freud gave birth to Carl Jung who gave birth to Joseph Campbell and Matthew Fox and countless others who continue this exploration and this mapping.

But it was great grandfather Freud who said our minds are houses built upon ruins, and I imagine a humble split level ranch built on a sacred burial ground and a little girl who touches the gray snow of a television screen and announces: “they’re here”.

Our genetic makeup is composed of layer upon layer of stuff, the good the bad and the grotesque, that has been handed down by ancestors we know and ancestors we will never know. And these lines of offering contain unimaginable riches and deep dark woundings and dirty little secrets.

THEY'RE HERE

My mother had a strained relationship with her mother, my grandmother. I never completely understood the dislike and the animosity that passed between them, but I saw it had something to do with grandma’s general disposition. She was cranky and critical and maybe even a little mean. Once, when visiting her, she spanked me for wetting the bed. Even then, I felt like the light spanking was obligatory on her part; that she believed my behavior required a proper parental response; like I had done it on purpose and would not ever change my conduct unless I received a punishment. It was simple aversion therapy.  And it was for my own good.

Grandma Berry was not the kind who made cookies for the grandkids. I and my sisters dreaded the long drives to her house in central Illinois and the smell of decay and mold in her dusty and cluttered living room, with the framed prints of Jesus and the bronze lamps that we must not touch. Always up on the wall there was the yellowing photo of kindly grandpa Berry gazing down at us. We understood from our mother that he was a saint; the smartest man in the world, immensely talented; loving and kind.

Grandpa was the missing piece to this grandparental pair. He was the one whose presence would mute the harshness of his wife. He was the one who, were he here, would make everything fun and interesting and bearable. He would balance out the old bitch.

But there was no balance to be found, because he died before I was born, and like most saints he became larger than life, and a whole family mythology grew up around him. Grandpa was a brilliant writer and poet and a long-time minister in the United Brethren denomination, before they became so “modernistic”. He had multiple degrees, was an insatiable reader, and by all accounts “an all around good guy”. We were encouraged to be like him and I could receive no greater complement than “you’re just like your grandfather” or “you get your writing skill from grandpa”.

Toward the end of her life, my grandmother had a stroke, went into the hospital and later came to stay with us to live out her days. I was in high school and I accompanied my mother to the old smelly house in the neighboring state, to clear it out and prepare it for sale.

Grandma was a bit of a “hoarder” and the place was stacked from floor to ceiling with junk. She had grown up during the depression and could not bear ever throwing anything away. We found hundreds, maybe thousands, of empty and cleaned cottage cheese tubs all stacked up in long tubes. And this was back when the plastic of cottage cheese containers was quite thin and flimsy, hardly reusable.

There was one whole half of the house that was used for nothing but storing forgotten things, mostly junk that even my very frugal mother would discard. I see now that this house was a living metaphor for my family heritage:  certainly cluttered and claustrophobic with, and fully half of it set aside to store, the lost, the hidden, the forgotten, and the dirty little secrets. We went through closets and boxes and chests one by one, giving most of the findings to the metal drum in the back yard and setting the stuff on fire.

I was standing over my mother when she opened up that old trunk and found near the bottom, some neatly folded white ceremonial robes. She pulled them out and I saw a patch carefully sewn to the chest of one of the garments that bore three capital letter -K-’s gracefully embroidered into a circle. Unbelieving, I kneeled down to get a better look and asked, “Is that . . . ?” I couldn’t finish the question. I looked at my mother in disbelief and she seemed to sink into herself, not speaking.

They were a pair of long white robes to be worn by loyal members of the Ku Klux Klan; his and hers, complete with hoods. I almost laughed to see the patch on the nearly identical women’s robe was given a slightly more feminine accent.  You wouldn’t want a lady to show up to a cross-burning with an inappropriately masculine KKK patch.

My mother must have had an inkling that grandpa was sympathetic to the Klan because she was quick to explain to me that they were not against the blacks; they were against the Catholics, which was somehow less egregious. Mom stated her intention to get rid of them, even before my sisters had seen them. I suggested we keep them, for good or bad, as a piece of our family record. I saw them as museum pieces. At the time, they felt to me like ancient artifacts; as a curiosity or a conversation starter: “Did you know grandpa was a minister . . . oh, and a Klansman?

My mother did not respond to my suggestion, but that night after everyone else had gone to bed, she took her mother’s and her father’s KKK robes into the back yard and set them aflame, erasing any record that they had ever existed. It bears noticing that this event took place in 1970, with the backdrop of the civil rights movement in full view.

Her actions could be viewed as ceremonial; laying away the past and the obsolete. However I know that she was deeply embarrassed by this discovery and mostly wanted to erase the truth from her own memory. After the evidence was destroyed, we could put grandpa back on his pedestal and pretend it never happened. There was no facing the truth; it was all about sweeping it under the rug. This is further supported by her desire that the rest of my family be spared the awful truth. But, of course, I was just an excitable boy . . . so I told everybody.

Many people don’t know that Indiana was the nexus point for the Klan in America after World War I. The movement had found temporary disfavor in the south so it migrated north and happened upon fertile ground in the heart of the Midwest. The Klan owned the state house and the governor, and they were quite proud of all the pastors and ministers who signed on as members of the club. My grandfather was one of them. He could have been one of the ones who resisted the pressure to join up. He did not have to jump onto the bandwagon. He could have been one of the few who stood up in their pulpits and bravely spoke out against the Klan. But he did not; he did not resist, and I can’t know how many persons suffered or died because of my grandfather’s actions or lack of action; because of my grandfather’s cowardice.

This is my legacy. This story is in my blood and my bones. Grandpa secreted darkness into Mama, and she passed it on to me. It is given to me, as well as to my brothers and sisters; my nieces and nephews, to do what we can to make amends for our grandfather’s sins, whether sins of commission or sins of omission.

It is given to us to heal the wounding of our ancestors and to bring their dirty little secrets into the light so we might enjoy the reciprocal blessing that accompanies our confession.  I can see how the failure to speak the family’s truth can lead to rationalization and covert traditions of bigotry and racism.  I can see how each family’s failure to purge their closets and to face their varied legacies can lead to meanness, prejudice, and brutality on the part of our entire culture.

If we can begin to atone for the sins of our mothers and our fathers, then I and my siblings, and all our descendants may not have to wade through the dark muck of old patterns that have been imprinted onto our collective psyches by past generations. It is time for us to build a temple to forgiveness on those old ruins.

So that when the little girl once again announces “they’re here”, we don’t have to run and hide. We can meet the ancient ones at the door with open arms and longing hearts, and finally utter the words, “Welcome home, Grandpa”.

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John Berry Deakyne is an ordained Shamanic Minister, an author, a workshop facilitator, a writing coach, and a spiritual counselor.  He founded the Earth School for Souls in Sedona, AZ as well as Sedona Wordsmith which is a grass-roots publishing house and resource for writers.  He pens the popular blog, on the road to find out.

His novel, The Tower Card is the first in a series of books inspired by the tarot.  He is currently working on a non-fiction book, Becoming Shaman, which is a “handbook for traversing the uncertain terrain of the New Earth.”  John is grounded in traditional counseling theory as well as spiritual teaching and shamanic practice.  In his work, he employs traditional teaching, shadow-work, storytelling, breath-work journeying, and shamanic ceremony and ritual aimed at guiding participants past their personal limitations into the light of their pure potential.  Learn more about the Earth School for Souls; and on Facebook at The Heartland Center for Transformation.

Images provided by the author.