Sunday, April 8, 2012

John Wiswell Died on Easter


Easter is by far my least favorite holiday. Not for a gripe against Jesus, or about Christianity and Paganism, or that weak-willed whining of adults who as kids had the labor of twice a year dressing for church. It was on this holiday in 1981 that Dr. John Wiswell died, and that sort of a thing sticks with a John Wiswell.

I grew up hearing he was my guardian angel. I also grew up hearing he was an atheist. He was a sickly man who couldn’t get out of bed on his own, and he almost left my grandmother for another woman. They couldn’t have kids and adopted them to build a loving family, and he kept a harmful emotional distance from them. For most of my childhood he was a photo on my father’s desk that Dad wouldn’t talk about. My paternal grandfather managed to exist as a highly contradictory set of myths, myths that were retold and reappropriated every April.

All myths tied to the central Easter story. I spent most Easters at my grandmother’s; I’m told my birth saved her life, coming so shortly after the loss of her husband. That’s one of many things I heard from her, or my father on the drive to Maryland, or my mother on the drive back. That Easter story had a damnable habit of changing.

There’s a 1981 Easter dinner, my Mom and Dad sitting at John Wiswell’s dining table, John telling his son he wasn’t good enough for his wife. In some versions he was joking; years later, after my mother divorced him, more versions pitted John as serious. I remember one Easter Story where he was so excited over the prospect of a grandson, arguing over the best place for him to be born, though I also recall one about him spending that morning in the basement workshop, alone, refusing to tell anyone what he was doing. The most common is the 1981 Easter dinner where a family member came out as gay, and John was so visibly shaken that he went upstairs to lie down. In every version of the Easter story he went upstairs to lie down, and he never returned.

It was a heart attack that left my grandmother a widow for my entire lifetime. She’s looking at her 95th birthday this summer. That’s one of the ways I mark my life: I’m the length of time that the sweet old lady has been without John Wiswell.

None of the John Wiswell Easters are necessarily true, but they combine to a very good primer on how people’s agendas define history. Even when I was too na├»ve to really doubt each contradictory tale, I understood they came because my father was particularly morose that weekend, or my grandmother felt particularly nostalgic, or from whatever was behind my aunt’s cloudy eyes. I appreciated and internalized all the myths.

Perhaps I internalized them too well. In recent years I’ve tended to fall very ill around Easter, and this mortality leads to inevitable morbidity. On a recent Easter, after having dinner with a wonderful lesbian couple, I actually had to excuse myself and go lie down. Staring at the plaster ceiling, uncertain if I could sit up, it was hard not to dwell on the myths of John Wiswell.

So around Easter I tend to fall ill, and I tend to grow grim. It’s not a gripe against Jesus, or my health, or even against any John Wiswell in particular. It is a long habit, no better than Samuel Clemens thinking he’d go out on the comet he rode in on. Actually, it’s worse – at least his was zany.

But contrary to a lot of secular thought, we don’t get to pick our myths. If this day means anything to you, then I wish your order of myths treats you well.

21 comments:

  1. No, we don't get to pick our myths. We can try and repackage them, retell them, paint them in different colors, but they're still deep within our bones. About a year ago someone from my past came forward to dredge up some old family business. The result was I had to see a doctor. So I appreciate this story.

    (I also hate Easter for all the usual reasons: Jesus, eggs and bunnies, Gawd)

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    1. The recycling means a lot to us, and to the myths. Perhaps I've recycled them too harshly here if it's intimidating commenters, but I was compelled to share. And I don't hate everything about Easter - quite enjoy a little Gawd and a lot of Cadbury Eggs.

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  2. I appreciate you telling us your story, John. It's incredibly brave to put your life out there like you do so often. We all let bits of ourselves slip into our fiction and I share privately with some friends how much is true and how much is creative license, but I don't have the courage to put anything true out there and admire you for doing so.

    My daughter was born 4 days before the one year anniversary of her paternal grandfather's death. His widow told me my entire pregnancy, "I hope she's born on Daddy's day." And I prayed she wouldn't be because I didn't want the celebration of her birth to also be the remembrance of his death. She's grown up with a lot of myths as well and I wonder how those will affect her the older she gets.

    As for Easter, this weekend truly means the most to me as a Christian. It's when I'm most reflective about my faith and the reasons I believe.

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    1. I figure if I keep sharing, I have a greater chance of touching some people and convincing them to try it. I'll settle for the touching. And I don't begrudge your choices - not of prayers, nor of priorities for meaning in the weekend. Thank you for your kindness.

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  3. I wanted to respond to this but wasn't sure what to say. As above I appreciate your honesty here and was moved by it.

    I also (hope this isn't inappropriate)thought you told it well. For example the way you end paragraph 4 which has added impact with the way you've built it up.

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    1. Please know that you're quite welcome to respond to anything I ever say. Even if I should some day share something about myself that is too vulnerable, it'd be horrible of me to desire the audience be mute. And thank you for pointing out the close to para4 - that was deliberate, and I'm glad it clicked for you.

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  4. This is hard to comment on without feeling like I'm intruding, which among other things is proof it was communicated well.

    I see it as a great example of how holidays mean greatly different things to different people, and how some of those things are more about timing than the holiday per se. The holiday part just turns into a sort of amplifier.

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    1. Absolutely, holidays can mean so many different things to people. Just a survey of billboards around New York City at Christmas is a study in polarization.

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  5. Easter means different things to different people. As life is long and complicated, I hope that as the Easters of your life come and go, the various mythologies of you - the current John Wiswell - interweave to something that brings you joy rather than illness.

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    1. I do endeavor to build better histories for Easter. That's why I went out of my way to be good to others today, and dined with that couple back then. Should I live long enough, I'll at least leave something nicer to be haunted by.

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  6. Thank you. Like so many others I am having trouble commenting. I recognise only too well the power that family myths hold. Including the ones we create for ourselves which in my case are usually based on half truths at best.
    I am hoping that your health is improving again by the hour.

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    1. My health is going to be part of my personal mythos permanently, that's for certain. But I do my best to wrangle it. Thank you for the well-wishes - I'll put them to the best use I can.

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  7. I think this is your most powerful piece yet, John.
    Thanks for opening up and broadening the mystery which is John Wiswell.

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  8. Easter has a different meaning for me, that is not to say I forget its original meaning, although I don't go to church, but then my god resides within me. I do love chocolate, so embrace the giving of it. But Easter has another significance for me, it was around Easter time that my one and only son was born, bringing me a joy that will last me my lifetime. He truly was a gift from god and one I will always treasure.

    I have to admit there are no family myths that I recall in my life, perhaps I am one of the lucky ones. Thanks for sharing these elements of your life with all of us John. My wish for you is a reflection of Tony's words, I hope somewhere in the future, your myth takes on elements of you as John Wiswell and brings you joy as Tony said, rather than illness. ≈♥≈ ≈♥≈ .

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  9. Someone just pointed out to me today that bad things have a tendency of happening to me on holidays. Having never realized it before now I fear I'll get jittery whenever one's around the corner.

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    1. What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you on Halloween?

      I ask because I love that holiday.

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    2. Nothing yet. So far just Valentine's, Easter and Thanksgiving. Two more and I get to join the Holiday Curmudgeon Society.

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  10. Hi John, if you would like to pop over to my blog I have someething for you. :)


    http://greenstephenj.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/versatile-blogger.html

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  11. I'm always fascinated by your family related posts. They're deeply personal and read like good fiction, though I don't doubt them to be true. Thanks for sharing.

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  12. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about this- the agenda creating history thing- in Committed. Just about how American woman tend to use the story of how they met their spouse to define themselves. If the story goes well, it's like every other great love story and is meant to say something important about the speaker. If it goes poorly, it's used as a cautionary tale to tell other woman of the dangers awaiting them. But every story has an angle and nothing is, as you pointed out, necessarily true. Family myths tend to be like that except that with so many different speakers there's so many different angles. My family is no different in this respect, save that because of the disconnect I have with my relatives I usually only hear one side of the story.

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  13. I enjoy your narration about your life, all wrapped up in a way that only a John Wiswell could tell. Hope you turn well soon-

    As for me, I met my real father, eons ago, around Easter time...actually, it was April Fool's Day. I haven't seen him since, so yes, I have many myths about Easter, and the return of thy father! (pun intended) : )

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