There's one cherished memory that grew out of my grandmother's estrangement. My grandmother's siblings, for the most part, were fearful about keeping in touch with their sister because they did not want to go against their father's wishes. However, a couple of my father's aunts and uncles did on occasion secretly defy him to maintain a connection with my grandmom.
On one such occasion, my grandmom was having a family barbecue and her sister, my Great Aunt Urse, snuck around to take part. Not in the habit of showing up empty- handed to a gathering, she brought a plate of deviled eggs arranged on a blue Limoges plate. To Aunt Urse, the plate was an everyday plate, but to the rest of us, it was clearly a fi ne piece of china. Grandmom O'Donnell recognized it right away from her mother's china collection. At the end of the party, Aunt Urse left in haste, forgetting the plate. Grandmom thought about returning it—but the temptation to have something that belonged to her mother was just too great, so she kept it. A few days later, the plate took a place of honor up on my grandmother's wall. It was the only keepsake she had from her mother, so it meant a great deal to her. She proudly showed it to everyone who came by for a visit.
She would point to it up on the wall, and say cheekily, "That's my inheritance." Except, of course, when good ol' Aunt Urse came over. For her visits, the plate was temporarily removed.
Well, the story of my grandmother's prized blue plate did not end there, because after she and most of her siblings had passed, the provenance of the plate was thrown into question. At one point, one of my father's relatives reached out to him to see if he planned to challenge the estate. My father didn't want any of their money, he said. All he wanted was his Aunt Ursula's blue plate.
And so it was settled—and now the blue plate hangs proudly on my parents' living room wall.
I never really knew my paternal grandfather, Francis. He was out of the picture by the time I was born. He was a difficult character. He drank . . . a lot. I share the broad details of his life with a heavy heart. He was my grandfather, after all, and it's difficult to cast a member of your own family in such a vulnerable light, but this was who he was. We do not lift or improve ourselves by ignoring the mistakes or missteps of others; rather, we must consider the bad paths they've taken or the turns they might have missed and weigh them against the roads that spread out before us. We don't do ourselves or our loved ones any favors by avoiding the truths of our lives, however ugly or heartbreaking those truths happen to be.
I only met my grandfather once. I was in fifth grade, and he was living down in Clearwater, Florida. My father hadn't been in touch with him for years, but out of the blue his father sent him a check for $1,000, as a kind of make-amends gesture. My dad recognized that check as the lonely, desperate cry that it was, so with his $1,000 he packed us six kids and my cousin Evelyn into a run-down passenger van we'd borrowed for the occasion, and we drove down to Florida for a family reunion he said was long overdue. Even as a kid, I saw this as a great lesson in forgiveness and turning the other cheek. I was old enough to understand the depths of my grandfather's mistreatment of his family, but here was my father, taking what for us was a lot of money and spending it on the man who'd showered so much abuse on him for so many years.