My mother, who was full of love, piss and vinegar, has been gone nigh on a dozen years now. I have her artwork on my home office walls. Most particularly, over in the corner a charcoal pencil sketch of bipolar Grandpa. I think she was affected profoundly by having to claim the body of her father. My grandmother, Theodora Niedbalski Benjamin drove up to South Carolina with my mom, then nineteen years old. Theodora’s late husband is buried where he died, up in South Carolina, a final act of retribution from his embattled widow. Grandpa Benjamin had been missing or at least they hadn’t heard from him for eighteen months. Come to find out he had enrolled at Clemson University, that school’s oldest freshman ever. Old Sarge was failing in his classes, so he took a long walk in the woods behind Clemson, taking his brother Lawrence’s straight razor with him.
He did not inherit his parents’ house in Dunkirk, Lawrence did. I know this because Pammie and I found letters from Chicago lawyers denying he had any interest in their home on the shores of Lake Erie. The Benjamin Family tree is rich with detail that I have been uploading really for the last ten years or so, my hobby/obsession. But his story was wrapped in mystery until just a few years ago, when cousin Pammie brought what I refer to as “Pandora’s Box” – a bunch of clippings and letters and other documents that Grandma Benjamin had left to her oldest son, my uncle Emmett.
Mom married just a month or so after seeing to the burial of her father. Shortly after her twentieth birthday, she married her dashing Navy man on Treasure Island Naval Base on August 30, 1952. What an odd contrast to the prior month, I had always thought the seriousness of expression in her bridal photos was due to the slow lenses of the cameras back then. The truth is richer, odd word for lived tragedy, but bare bones of facts and dates of events nobody ever talked about lead me to see that young bride’s face quite differently now.
It was a tough beginning for Grandpa Benjamin. Young Emmett Senior was just three years old when his father died in Cassadaga Sanitorium in 1901. His mother remarried ten years later, and mercifully died in 1942, before her two surviving sons killed themselves. His oldest brother, Augustus, died at 52 years old, supposedly of natural causes, I can’t find anything to the contrary. The second oldest brother, Lawrence died at 54 years old, by his own hand on the 20th of June 1946. He left Emmett a trunk, and in it, the straight razor that he had used to cut his own throat. It’s a second tier of crazy, doing oneself in the very same way with the very same implement. And my spouse wonders why I need pills to sleep at night. Haunted unto the last helix, DNA carries more than Xs and Ys.