At the reflective age of 30 Michael had spent a lot of time thinking about his family. Not his wife and kids but his mom and dad and his older brother Jim. The family he grew up with in the 1970's. When he was younger, he remembered it being a nice family. His father managed a garage of a large trucking company while he remembered his mother always had dinner on the table around 5:30.
She always made great dinners too. Her ancestors were part of an acient gravy guild. Always homemade meat and potato courses with pies for dessert. She made homemade eggs noodles with chicken. His favorite was her scalloped potatoes. She confided in him one day the secret was a can of mushroom soup. Some things like steak were always a little well done cause that's the way his dad wanted his steak. In fact he was 19 before he heard there was an option. And they never got much spicy food, again cause his dad never liked it. But no matter what it was always delicious. His mother grew up in a generation that always took pride in house keeping as a profession. In this she excelled he thought.
Besides house chores she always had a full time job. When Michael and Jim were young she was an LPN but as they grew up she quietly changed jobs. She ended her life working for the county as a cook. First 15 years for the sheriffs dept. Then another 15 at a school for troubled boys. She was loved and appreciated at these jobs, first by the deputies and later by the children. Everyone called her 'Mom'.
His father was less loved at his jobs but no less appreciated and hard working. When Michael and Jim were very young their father drove a truck. Hauling coal from the WV coal fields to the power station on the Ohio River. Michael remembers a story his father told him once while he tagged along in the big truck. He said, ''Many years ago, before you was born, I was over there in WV setting in the line starting up that hill to the coal field you know, waiting for the next load, when a guy coming down the hill with his load slows down and yelled out the window at me, some son-of-a-bitch just shot President Kennedy!''
That story, like his father said, recalled a time before Michael remembered. His brother Jim only being a couple years older had about the same memories of their childhood. There were lots of things that reminded them of a life their parents had before they were around. Not the least of which was another set of much older children. Like Michael and Jim they too were separated by two years but from Michael and Jim they were separated by twenty years.
There were no memories of these two living at the house. In fact Michael only had one memory for each of them from when he was very young. Michael remembered visiting the oldest one in prison when he was a baby. His only memory is waking up on his mother's lap across from this convict at a large cold metal table. His memory of the other one was going to the airport with his mother to pick that one up when he returned from the Army. He remembered specifically there was a hug involved that time.
The thought of that hug leads into other thoughts of other hugs. Michael's mother came from a long line of huggers where as his father almost never resorted to 'desperate' displays of affection. Michael always assumed this is where he too picked up a disdain for physical affection. His mother told him once, ''That's just the way you've always been. Even when you were a baby you would always pull away when I tried to kiss you.'' He always assumed that the fact that he only ever saw his parents kiss 2-3 times in twenty years may have influenced it, but he could never be sure.
So it was for Michael growing up, that he always knew his parents had another family before he and his brother. It was like that in reality too. For instance when Michael and Jim would be enjoying their Saturday cartoons quite often their parents oldest son would show up and force them into some menial task around the house, motivating them by verbally abusing them. Often it involved picking up unrecognizable old pop bottles thrown into the sheep field by these older two when they were in Michael and Jim's position of unsupervised children.
So not much fraternal fondness ever developed between these two sets. The first set growing up in the fifties and sixties under the supervision of the greatest generation, while Michael and his brother grew up in the seventies and eighties with what was leftover. At least that's how it struck Michael growing up.
This feeling only grew stronger over the years. It was true his mother cooked dinner every night and they all gathered around the table to eat but there wasn't a lot of pleasantries. They would eat, his father would retire to his chair or more often his hobby shop and there spend the remainder of the day. While his mother would clean up the dishes and retreat to her bedroom to read or paint ceramics.
Besides the memories of dinners around the table the other most recalled memory were of baby sitters. Back then before either he or his brother were in school they spent a great amount of time with baby sitters while mom was at the convalescence center nursing the elderly and their father was driving. It was with one of these days while hiding in the goldenrod in the sheep field spying on the new babysitter they decided to just leave, to run away. Apparently, he nor his brother were any happier at the house than his parents, and they seemed to be home as little as possible. It made sense.
What made the least sense about this was their age. Looking back on this at 30 it helped Michael form a suspicion about his happy home. Again the age that he and his brother thought to run away bothered him. He remembered themselves as being very young but it was tough to say exactly how young until one day he asked his mother if she remembered and she laughed and said, ''Why yes! I remember that. Don't you remember Joe had to run up and get Barbara to come down from her house to get you out of the sticker bush? Your diaper was caught.''
Another fond memory he has, this time of grade school was when he and his brother were banned from the school bus. The school informed his mother that her sons were no longer welcome on the bus and she informed them that they will be walking then. While it wasn't more than few miles it was along a state route, so there was an element of danger. But 20th century danger differed from 21st century in that you almost always survived it.
This turned out to be some of the best memories for Michael with his brother Joe. They would start down the roadway with their book bags as a steady line of noisy school buses passed them heading to parts unknown. They started taking a short cut through the woods that their father told them of. It turned out to be the same short cut used many years before by his aunts and uncle on their way home from school.
They would arrive at the old farmhouse just in time to wave at the empty school bus passing their house as they were the last kids on the route. Getting home would take the same amount of time by bus or by 4th grade legs and walking he found much more enjoyable. After this continued a few weeks in all types of weather someone at the school had the great idea to reverse the route and put those brothers off first. Naturally, they just needed time to compromise.
There was another thing that stuck out during his childhood. His parents never shared the same bedroom. The only reason this stuck out for Michael as unusual was that they lived in an old three bedroom farmhouse. That meant he and his brother shared a room. Michael never appreciated this, mainly cause his brother had some unusual sleeping disorders.
When they were very young they shared an old broken down bed that was almost certainly his parents before they split into different rooms. The older set of brothers probably being conceived in that bed decades earlier.
As Michael and his brother grew, Joe's sleeping disorder became worse. When Jim was about 10 and Michael around 8, Jim started sleep walking a lot. Which was unsettling but not until one night Jim rolled over and covered Michael in vomit did Michael demand a different bed. His mother insisted too, so they moved another bed into the room on the opposite corner soon after that.
This old farmhouse like every old farmhouse had an abundance of wasps in the summer. Not just a wasp or two but hundreds circling the eves. This was but another part of life accepted by Michael as perfectly normal. Even when a wasp would find its way into his bed and under the covers, he learn to take this in stride. At first it made it impossible to sleep in on weekends but as the summers wore on he got used to it enough to sleep through it more or less. Michael took everything with the unwitting resolution of youth.
This bedroom configuration didn't last too long before Jim's sleep walking took its toll. One night while the house was silent except for the ever present phantoms creaking up and down the stairs, Michael lay slumbering. Unknown to the rest of the house Jim was walking. He didn't go far before he realized in his mind, one can assume, he had made it to the bathroom toilet and could relieve himself. The only problem was he had only managed to cross the bedroom and was now showering his poor brother's sleeping body. Not until his mother noticed the sound of running water did she come in to the room and turn on the light alerting at least Michael to what was happening. This signaled the end of a shared room.
So this began the next stage of Michael's life. He moved from his brother's bedroom of horrors into the only option available at the time, his fathers bedroom. He slept peacefully enough in his father's room for several years until the strain became so great between his parents that his mother moved out for awhile. In a normal family this would have been viewed as a set back but to Michael at least it seemed like an improvement.
With his mother's room empty he was free to move in there. Which really didn't excite him either way. That room actually had the most wasps in the morning. But it was a good place to explore. It also had the most souvenirs from the last family that lived there. That being his parents first family. The most interesting thing was an old chest half full of old card board pictures and what he later realized was 8mm films.
Michael and his brother would set in there and hold the roles of film to the light and see lots of family scenes. A reoccurring one seemed to include a boat on a river. Michael and Joe sat around for hours pretending how exciting life must have been like with a boat. There were also films of horseback riding and hunting camps where everyone wore this silly red plaid clothing.
The pictures too were amazing. Pictures from every year of the older set of sons lives from when they were small like Michael and Joe and up into high school. These photos were still being added to. Pictures of recent weddings from both of them had been put in there. There were old black and white pictures of long gone people too. Michael noticed no one seemed to smile in the really old ones.
Curiously there were five baby books in the chest. One for each of his parents four children plus an unknown one. The older set of children had books stuffed full of memories. Including locks of hair and numerous cards from well wishers, all with handwritten notes in the margins. Michael and his brother's baby books were far less full. They still had lots of cards from long lost family and well wishers, even a silver half dollar, but when it came to notes it was obviously that his mother only spent a day filling in dates and place names before the book was added to the chest.
When Michael inspected the fifth baby book he discovered the same cards as in the other four and like the last two books the handwriting was pretty sparse. He also found a single picture of a small baby in a casket. When he asked his mother about the picture later she told him it was his sister, her only daughter. She only survived two days. This child was born in the 20 years that seperated the two sets of brothers. This obviously wounded his mother. This led Michael to assume that his mother must have tried twice more for a daughter before running out of time.
There were really old pictures of his mother and father in there too. In those they were so young and skinny. They both radiated a beauty of youth. It was the fifties. His father had a head full of black hair combed back and large cuffs in his blue jeans. In one photo they both leaned against a new car and both had a big cigar in their mouths pointing skyward.
In those they always smiled. There were pictures of them wrestling and holding each other, even some kissing. That certainly hadn't happened in either he or his brother Joe's memory. It was just a different time he thought. Just a different life and a different family he and his brother were not fortunate enough to be born into.
He found pictures of his grandparents also. Michael barely had memories of any grandparents. He remembered his mother's father. He remembered once when he was around six or seven he needed help tying his shoes and his grandfather helped him. When his grandfather finished he said, ''My goodness! Look at those legs... legs like oak trees.'' which at the time didn't make him feel anymore normal. In retrospect it has become a fond memory.
He did have one other memory of his grandfather. When Michael's mother and father were separated he heard of an argument that resulted in his grandfather saying, ''Those kids deserve every god damned bone in their body broken!'' He was the wisest of the family so Michael had no reason to doubt the accuracy of this statement.
Michael had no recollections of his grandfather's wife other than to say he recalled she looked a lot like his mother. She died early and I guess that was the only memory he had relating to her. He and his brother just got home from school after the long walk down the driveway and his mother met them on the patio in tears and told them Granny had died. While Joe joined his mother sobbing, Michael just stood staring at them crying. He remembered clearly thinking, ''Isn't that what old people do?'' The fact she was only in her sixties didn't mean the same as it does now. The expression on his face prompted his brother to ask sobbingly, ''Don't you understand?''
Michael remembers his mother kneeling down holding Joe, they were both looking at him when Joe asked the question. Michael didn't have the answer his brother wanted to hear. As the matriarch of the huggy side of the family he was sure she was everything he didn't recall.
His fathers parents are a real mystery. His father's mother died a few years before Michael or Joe's births. There was never any traces left of these two around the house. One photo of each of them surfaced decades later but far to late to inform Michael of his family.
He knows not one fact of his fathers mother's person. He knows she married a man many years older, like twice her age. Her father was an immigrant from Sweden. But that was about this extent of knowledge passed on about her. Decades later when that photo turned up of his grandmother setting in a chair on an old familiar porch, Michael said to his mother, ''She looks like the nicest person on earth.'' His mother told him she was.
Which leads to her husband. This man was the biggest mystery in the family. What Michael knew of this man was that he was 65 when Michael's father was born. Born in 1865 after his father returned from the civil war, Michael's grandfather on his father's side died 25 years before Michael was born. Never having heard much about this man ever he was completely floored by what he overheard one day.
Michael was about 19 and had a job selling hot dogs from a cart on the street. His mother stopped by for a chat one day and while they were there another person walked up and joined the conversation. This other person was a cousin from his father's side which meant they were complete strangers. What he overheard changed a lot of what he thought about the family.
They reason this cousin stopped was to talk to Michael's mother about this person's own mother who recently passed away. Michael's father's sister had recently died and barely made headlines at his father's house. This lady, his cousin started by saying to his mother, ''Do you remember the story of my mother and her sister's walking home from school through the woods and that man catching Aunt Francis?'' Francis was another one of Michael's father's sibling that he only heard of once or so during his life.
The story the family told, that Michael was just hearing for the first time, was a man raped Aunt Francis when she was a child in the woods resulting in Francis being confined in a state hospital for her entire life. Michael had no recollection of what this lady looked like as he had never laid eyes on her, a photo or otherwise.
His cousin was continuing the story with his mother she said something so unexpected that Michael almost fell on the ground when he heard it. The lady said, ''You know how it was discovered later that the man in the woods was actually her father?'' Michael's cousin was asking his mother if she ever heard if Michael's grandfather ever raped his other daughters. He remembered his mother saying it never happened to the others.
This revelation filled in some blanks about the family dynamic that existed before Michael and Jim' birth. He thought it explained his father's emotional distance that had long been assumed as just a guy thing. The assault upon his sister occurred decades before his father's birth but the ripples had to be felt his entire life.
Now at thirty Michael was once again revisiting these thoughts when he heard a knock at the door. It turned out to be his brother Jim stopping by to ask about the location of something he couldn't locate in the shop. Michael was only partly listening. Jim noticed and asked what was on his mind. Michael casually mentioned he had been thinking about the old chest in the bedroom at the old house. Jim asked Michael if it ever seemed like the family was different when their older brothers were young. Michael said sure it wasn't the same family. A lot had happened in the intervening twenty years between the groups of siblings.
Just then their father showed up at the door and entered the room and joined the conversation. He asked casually, ''What are you guys talking?'' As he threw himself down into the recliner, looking though a small stack of newspaper. Michael and Jim turned toward each other with grins and Michael spoke up. ''Dad, why in Gods name did you wait twenty years and then decide to have two more kids?'' Before his father answered, Jim asked, '' Did you even have the energy to raise two more kids?'' His father smiled sheepishly and quickly answered simply saying, ''No.''