On this day, June 10th, what would have been my mother’s 69th birthday had she not passed away suddenly last October, I am conflicted.
Do I have the right to write about family history yet again?
And yet without the past, it’s difficult to write about the future. They are connected, by both visible and invisible lines, threads of beliefs and behaviors, attitudes and antagonisms, odd coincidences and strangely fortunate happenings. Particularly in my family.
My grandmother (Betty Connally) was never supposed to have children. My grandfather (Al Langworthy) was an only child, born of a wedding that was not supposed to have taken place. My mother was named before her mother’s first husband, Lt. John Hart, was killed a month after the D-Day invasion, even though she wasn’t born until six years later when her mother had remarried.
The strange coincidence was that Al and John had been friends before the war. “How’s Johnny?” Al asked Betty when they met after the war, in January 1946 – not knowing Johnny had been killed.
The guilt must have been immense. Al proposed after half a year. That’s all we knew, until recently.
After my mother passed away, we rediscovered my mother’s long-lost science fiction manuscript (Destiny in the Future, all sales donated to the American Cancer Society to raise awareness of breast cancer). And we also found a handful of letters from my grandfather to my grandmother. All were written in 1946, just before and just after they married.
But there were no letters from her to him. There were two from her to her first husband, Lt. John Hart, killed in July 1944. It doesn’t mean my grandmother never wrote letters to Al, just that if she did, none survive. She forever compared my grandfather to his ghost, a comparison my grandfather could never win.
And yet she kept Al’s love letters, nonetheless.
The letters are often sappy, filled with trite phrases and lots of curious misspellings such as “mischevious” and “exspression” (no autocorrect back then, obviously). But more than often poignant, and very revealing about my grandparents’ character.
As kids, your older relatives are just your relatives. You don’t think of them as separate, individual personalities. Grandma is just Grandma. Uncles and aunts are just Uncles and Aunts. It’s been difficult for me to get to know my relatives as people, partly because there are simply so many of them (literally over a dozen aunts and uncles in our family forest) and partly because I live so far away from them.
We used to be concentrated in the Albany/Troy/Schenectady Capital District region of New York. Now we’re scattered across the world. Many of us joined the military, as members of my family always have, from the 1600s onward. The poor get to fight rich men’s wars. This has never changed. An unfortunate connection of the past to the present and future.
I am undecided whether I have the right to publish my grandparents’ private letters. They rarely wrote anything. But they were anything but private people. My grandmother, especially, was never hesitant to express her opinion, openly and publicly (usually with a healthy dose of profanity). My mother, likewise.
I’m also uncertain whether our family’s history is of any interest to anybody outside our own family. But I can see clearly in our family’s history the trauma inflicted by conflict, trauma that scars the past, the present, and the future for many families. My grandmother’s refusal to meet the men who brought her first husband’s death notice. My grandfather’s refusal to acknowledge that he was dealing with what now we would call PTSD. Survivor’s guilt. His insistence that he got a Purple Heart, when it was his dead friend who got one. Stories about events that never happened to you. Knowing that you survived and your friends and loved ones did not. The difficulty of returning to “normalcy” (if ever such a thing existed).
The paranoia about Communists (upon hearing news of Sputnik in 1957, my grandfather ran outside and banged on doors up and down the street, shouting that the Russians were coming — he did it again in 1965 during the Great Northeast Blackout).
And this is just my mother’s side of the family. My father’s side has its own history. As does everyone’s.
It would probably work much better as fiction. In fact, it often has. Anybody who has read the “war poets” or any given 19th century Russian fiction can recognize the need to fictionalize real events.
I love history, but I want to put a face to the dates and events. I want to bring humanity into my science fiction as well. History isn’t just young men blowing stuff up and pounding their chests. Every action has reactions and repercussions that echo down generations. The past influences us now and in the future.
Which is why there will definitely be more on the way, both in the writing of my family’s past and in future SF. Stay tuned!