Regular readers might have the impression by now that the Blumenau bloodline consists entirely of poets, Revolutionary War soldiers, plucky immigrants, and upright, industrious everymen who lived long and prospered.
There were those, yes.
But there have also been those on my family tree who struggled, who underachieved, who wrestled with demons and lost.
This week’s calendar entry finds my grandparents pausing for a moment to honor one of them.
That’s my grandma’s handwriting for a change, which makes sense. She was probably the one who ordered flowers for “W. Cahill” — that being Walter J. Cahill Jr., my other grandma’s older brother, who had died the day before up in Litchfield County.
I don’t know that much about my great-uncle Walter. I know he was the older brother of my maternal grandma and my great-uncle Ray, who died in World War II and is memorialized in one of the posts linked above.
I know the dates of his birth and death. I know he had one child, a son, and at least three grandchildren who might or might not have met him.
And I know, because I’ve been told, that he was an alcoholic.
If I understand my history correctly, he was not the first in the family with that affliction. His father — my great-grandfather, the first Walter J. Cahill — was also a chronic drinker. Perhaps there were still others before him.
At some point in her early adulthood, my grandmother decided she’d had enough of dealing with alcoholics. (My grandfather rarely drank, and always in moderation.)
So when Great-Uncle Walter turned out to be his father’s son, my grandma wanted little to do with him.
Although they lived in the same state, my mother only recalls him visiting once or twice while she was growing up. And when I’ve asked about him, my mom hasn’t had much to say. I don’ t think she’s hiding anything; I think she has little to share about him because he simply wasn’t part of the family.
I do not begrudge my grandmother her decision. I understand that having an alcoholic in the family — much less several of them — can be an ordeal; and that she had suffered enough pain in her younger years to not want to invite more into her life.
But by the same token, I wish I knew more about Great-Uncle Walter — the sorts of things I would know if he had been part of the family.
Was he a prankster? A cynic? A baseball fan?
A lifelong Republican? A Mercury driver? A cardshark?
Young at heart? Lonely at heart?
While I know next to nothing about Great-Uncle Walter, I find myself thinking about him from time to time.
Perhaps it is compassion or sympathy toward one of the few people on either side of my family who can truly be thought of as a black sheep.
Or maybe it’s because I’ve had days where I’ve sat at work at 9 o’clock in the morning imagining the taste of bourbon. Usually I tell myself that everyone has that feeling sometimes, and I should shut up and ignore it. But occasionally I wonder if that was the way Walter felt, and what keeps me from acting on it the way he did.
Or maybe my thoughts spring from the longing to fill a vacuum, to know more about something or someone not fully sketched out.
“Alcoholic” is a pretty limited definition, and the thinnest of passports on which to travel down the generations.
No matter how dissolute he might have been, I am sure there was more to Great-Uncle Walter than that; and I retain hope that someone — maybe a Google searcher from elsewhere in the family — can add further detail to the picture.