Thursday, March 15, 2018

Before coming to Alaska

Family: Something to cherish and celebrate
March 15, 2018 (2019©


The notion of “ family ” was foreign to me as a child.

Not until I took an Anchorage Community College class in Sociology did I understand that family is the “building block of society.” I remember being struck by that notion when I first heard it.
The circumstance of my childhood determined my understanding of family as: “Some people got it and some people don’t.”
My paternal grandfather, Ray Liston was born in a sharecropper cabin in Oklahoma. When he got my grandmother pregnant out of wedlock, her family–including some strapping farm boys–persuaded him do the right thing and marry my grandmother before my dad was born. That’s how my family worked back then.

My father was born October 31, 1929—the week the stock market crash sparked the Great Depression. His unskilled parents could hardly feed themselves, so my dad ended up being passed around among family and friends through most of the years leading to his graduation from high school in Clovis NM.

I guess this was a kind of family, but these people simply did what they had to do–not necessarily what they wanted to do–to survive.
These grandparents, with my father and his sister, could have played the “Joads” in the movie version of John Steinbeck’s book “The Grapes of Wrath.” They were simple people driven off the land by the great dustbowl, and they escaped with everything they owned to make it as far as New Mexico.
My mother’s story is similar; her father contracted tuberculosis and was isolated in a hospital for that disease. Her mother was a school teacher who took her two daughters west, being offered a job in an “Indian School” in Gallup, NM, but continuing to California anyway. When Grandma couldn’t find anything better, they returned to New Mexico, and she had a long career in education in New Mexico and later in California.
Life for poor people, during this time in our history, was a thread pulled until something was found on the other end or it broke, leaving nothing. Families tended to be large to manage the farm, and everyone followed a certain code of mutual support through hell or high water.
When I was born in the early 1950s, my father was following a family tradition of taking whatever work he could find and making every penny count. But my parents were married too young and by the time they had three babies to care for their marriage was over. Having children was one thing, supporting them in an unfamiliar social contract was quite another.
Added to this painful dynamic, was my father’s insecurities and self-loathing as a laborer going nowhere. Soon alcohol provided the propellant for an explosion. One drunken night included an assault of my mother and resulted in separation and ultimately divorce.
Whatever “ family ” might have been suggested by this short-lived marriage and propagation of children was thereby shattered forever.
My mother was not equipped to raise three children and work to support a household financially. She tried, but the task was impossible as her angry ex-husband monitored her every move and made sure “his” son was confused about adult problems beyond a child’s experience or understanding. As that eldest son, I called Dad after a week when Mom disappeared with a man she had been seeing. They had moved on to California–the Mecca of displaced dust bowl misfits.
Dad worked as a “telephone man” installing rotary dial instruments on which people dialed up and talked to each other. He paid child support, had a nice bachelor pad, and a 1958 MGA sports car. It had only two seats.

That is what he picked us up in; me, my sister and my brother. He gained temporary custody in the absence of our mother and took us away from the orphanage where we were being held. We also piled into that car a basset hound and a cat among the few belongings we could take away from our now deserted childhood Albuquerque home.
Was this a family?
The attorney said “no.” In fact, he said our mother would soon be notifying Dad of her address in California to which she expected the children she had legal custody of to be sent. My father later revealed to me that he had threatened to kill the man my mother was seeing before they disappeared. With that in mind, could our mother have had ample cause to desert us to find happiness away from all the pain she had endured in New Mexico? Would she have tried to get us back had our father not succeeded in gaining employment and moving our step-mother and the three of us to Alaska?
I don’t think so.
We never saw or heard from our mother, with very limited exceptions, until I looked her up and called her myself after nearly 30 years. I wasn’t angry anymore but my wife, Cathy, encouraged resolution of this void in my heart. As a result–on my 40th birthday–my mother and the step-sister I had never known visited us in Juneau! It was an awkward but wonderful reunion. We were strangers with a link to the past. Same bloodlines different life experiences.
Is family any association of people that certain parties want to aggregate?
Some are small, some are large, and some are extended beyond the place in which most members reside. Is that it?
I have learned through the wonder of FaceBook, from a fellow Liston–whom I would likely have never known because he lives in Texas–that the Liston family can be traced back to about 1021, “with the birth of Negel de Listona, a Norman Knight. Reportedly he was with William The Conqueror in 1066 during the Norman invasion of England. Negel died in 1086 having already changed the spelling of his name to the more English sounding, Nigel de Liston. Thus he is credited with being “the first Liston in history and father to all living Liston’s today,” according to Jeff M. Liston. The Liston’s de Liston FaceBook page even lists a Liston prayer (in Latin and English) believed to have been issued around 1023.
Listons from all over the world are friends on this digital gathering place. Through it, I have learned a lot about the dimension of my extended Liston family as one of many building blocks in the family of humans on planet earth.
I had already learned the hard way that family is something to cherish and celebrate.

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