June 3, 2008

Family History

This past weekend my family again gathered to celebrate my great aunt’s life. This time we were joined at the retirement community where she spent the last years of her life by many more friends. Those who couldn’t join us sent their love.

We laughed and cried and shared our best memories of her. After the memorial we adjourned to my cousin’s home to share stories that we had heard from her or about her. Everyone remembers things differently. She doled out information to each of us, almost as if she knew we wouldn’t put the whole puzzle together unless we were all together in one place. We celebrated her the way she would have wanted: as a family, around a loaded table, with full wine glasses. She will be greatly missed.

One special treat for me was to see a friend of my mother’s from the Old Neighborhood. As he noted, my great aunt was the last of a generation. But generations overlap, and Richard is old enough to remember her as a young woman, as well as her parents, and the vitality of that old Italian immigrant community. My aunt was accompanied his mother to the hospital when he was born.

He and my mother shared memories of my great grandparents, stories I’ve never heard or only vaguely remember. My great grandfather owned an apartment building on Seaman Avenue and Richard’s father was the super. He remembers spending summer days on the roof with his father and my great grandfather, keeping it wet so that my great grandmother could stay cool. They lugged up the radio and listened to Italian opera, if Richard behaved, they let him listen to The Lone Ranger or another of ‘his’ programs afterwards. It’s wonderful to hear these tales. My mother doesn’t know these stories; the roof was a Man’s Place.

Besides being one of the last people to have known my great grandparents, Richard was great friends with my uncle when they were growing up. I remember my uncle, known in those circles as Kenny, fondly. He embarrassed me at times, but he was the best uncle a tom-boy like me could have asked for. I didn’t see him often since he had fallen out with my grandmother early in his life and he didn’t want to have anything to do with her. Saturday night Richard and his wife Linda told me, for the first time, just how important I was to him. They said I was his world. I can easily believe that.

And over the veggie tray, I learned some other information about my uncle. His myriad health problems may have been the result of undiagnosed celiac as well.

The origin of my gluten intolerance has been a bit of a mystery to the family. I suffered severe skin reactions and deep depression along with bloating and general severe stomach pains. No one on either side of my family has ever manifested symptoms like this. I am an anomaly.

The huge missing link in our health history has always been my mother’s father. He was adopted at a young age and knew very little about his own parents, he abandoned the family when my mother was 7. Stories always seem to point to the likelihood that he suffered from depression, and possibly heart trouble. No one believes that he survives, although we have no way of knowing.

My memories of my uncle are of a vigorous, tall lanky man with a large pot belly (and an embarrassingly hairy chest). By the age of 55 my uncle had suffered at least one heart attack and one stroke. He also had severe hypothyroidism and refused to accept a diagnosis of depression. This combination proved to be lethal.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, my senior year of college, I was paralyzed by the idea that I would end up like him. Feeling too poorly to be out in public, even to go to the doctor, who might be able to help. After describing my own symptoms of celiac, the ones I suffer now if I get glutened and those leading up to my ‘diagnosis’, a light dawned for all of us. Linda said that for years Kenny had complained of skin ailments, he even described them similarly to how I described mine. The worse his skin got, the more he stayed inside and lived off of processed meat, canned vegetables and bread.

That night we started putting all these pieces together. With Linda, my mother and my own experience I feel confidant that he had celiac as well. It makes me so sad to think that he could have lived a better life, been spared much of his suffering had he known. But knowing that I have found a solution, that I won’t travel the same downward spiraling road is a relief.

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