Since we watched Lise Yasui’s “A Family Gathering”, I knew I wanted to relate it to my own relationship with my grandfather and great-grandfather, but I wasn’t sure how exactly to go about it. So that’s why it’s taken me so long. I’m still not exactly sure how this is going to turn out, but I’ll do my best.
My great-grandfather, Phil, died way before I was born, and yet, oddly enough, I feel like I know him better than any of my other great-grandparents (including the one I actually knew while I was growing up). Unlike Ms. Yasui, I don’t have any false or imagined memories of Phil, yet I feel this closeness to him, as she does for her grandfather, even if there’s no concrete reason for it.
I didn’t really know anything about him when I was a kid. Then, one night at dinner, when I was eleven or twelve, I randomly asked “has anyone in our family killed themselves?” I really don’t know why I asked it. And I definitely wasn’t expecting that anyone actually had. So it was really shocking when my mom answered: “you mean, other than Grandpa Phil? Nope, no one.”
“What? What do you mean? Grandpa Phil killed himself?”
I don’t remember very much after that of that particular conversation. Family members exchanged glances, not speaking, but I imagine they were thinking something along the lines of: “I guess she didn’t know. Oops.” And then I got the bare bones story of why and how. It would be several years later when I’d learn the details of Grandpa Phil’s death.
Philip Prince was an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who for a long time was a Communist and an active labor activist in his community in Newark, NJ. Later on he owned a plumbing supply store. At the time, bipolar disorder was not well known or diagnosed, but my family is fairly sure that he had it.
All of his life, my grandfather, Carl, had a difficult, complicated, and often antagonistic relationship with his father. I don’t doubt that Phil loved my grandfather in his own way, but, from what I’ve heard, he could be very cruel to his son.
Grandpa Phil killed himself in 1971. He hung himself in the upstairs bedroom of his and my great-grandmother Anne’s house, while she was out playing bridge with her friends. He left a note telling her not to go upstairs, and to call Carl to come over and go into the bedroom, which she did.
My grandfather was the one who found my Grandpa Phil hanging, he was the one who cut him down, and he was the one who was left to deal with Grandpa Phil’s affairs, including paying off creditors, reading the letters he left to family members, including his young grandchildren, and deciding whether or not to share them with their intended recipient, because some of the letters were also judgmental, cruel, and blaming.
I’m fairly certain that that was the worst and most difficult time in my grandfather’s life. Not many of us can imagine what it would be like to be in that situation, how we would feel, and how to possibly go forward. Learning about Grandpa Phil has both made me feel as if I have some understanding and connection to him, ambiguous though it may be, and has also given my relationship with my grandfather a new level.
I don’t pretend to know Grandpa Phil and all that he was as a person, and I’m the first to admit that I’m judgmental and negative towards him more than maybe I should be. After all, I‘ve never met him, never had the chance to speak with him, and I never will. But at the same time, I do feel a certain closeness to him that I don’t feel with my other great-grandparents. And it might sound odd, maybe even inappropriate, but I feel a kind of gratitude for learning about his story, because I have a deeper understanding, respect, and admiration for own grandfather, which I will always be grateful for.