It was a cold and dreary Saturday morning in February 2011 in a fashionable Cleveland, Ohio suburb. Earlier that day, I had received a telephone call from the caregivers at the assisted living site where my ailing and aged parents lived. It was a comfortable setting that from the exterior appeared to be just another private home on a suburban, upper-middle-class street. The building was indistinguishable from the other dwellings on that thoroughfare.
The call from the nurse who owned the facility was one that I had probably dreaded since childhood. The voice on the other end of the line began, “I am afraid I have some bad news for you.” Filled as I was with a sense of foreboding, I suspected what was coming next.
“Your father is not doing well,” the nurse announced. Was this health care code for “Your dad is dying?” It was. With trepidation, I responded shakily, “Wha’, Wha’, What’s wrong?” For a minute, all stopped including my breathing. I am sure that Mrs. Watson (not her real name) was as delicate as she knew how, but there is no easy way to say to a family member, “Your father may be nearing the end.” She added, “You will want to come here as soon as possible.”
And she was right about Dad’s demise. Still, I thought to myself, “Modern medicine could surely save him. For God’s sake, a world-renowned hospital in Cleveland was now performing face transplants.” Surely, it could buy my childhood hero a few extra months or even years.
My father died like he had lived—in a grandiose manner that belied his 5 feet, 6 inch stature. As he lay dying, the 25 by 30 foot living space that he shared with my mother was quite large, and contained relatively little furniture—a bed, two dressers, and a small, well-worn night stand. The shades and drapes were tightly drawn shut even though it was 10:00 a.m. The dim light gave the room an air of a 19th century Charles Dickens’ novel. The scene where Ebenezer Scrooge was awakened by the Ghost of Christmas Past comes to mind here. The room’s temperature seemed quite high and it felt stuffy, like the air decided to stop moving in deference to the unfolding events.
There was plenty of room for visitors in the spacious area allotted to my parents. Like some papal audience, my father’s space was filled with perhaps as many as two dozen nieces, nephews, grandchildren, adult children, and assorted friends and acquaintances—all keeping vigil over a 93-year-old, bed-ridden man who passed alternately into and out of consciousness. I spent much of that Saturday quietly grieving, although Dad was still officially alive. A former teacher of mine, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, has called this kind of grief anticipatory. The term fit well.
Butterflies fluttering around in my stomach, I thought to myself in a panic, “Oh, my God. Is this it? Is my father going to leave me alone, putting me on the road to adult orphan-hood? Will my sense of who I am (e.g. a son) need to shift again?”
I had spent the first several decades of my life trying to discover who I really was at my core. Of course, life has a way of throwing curves at us when instead we were expecting a fastball straight down the middle. A marriage, the birth of children, a move to the Caribbean, a divorce, a string of college degrees, and a series of prestigious jobs had all forced me to somewhat alter who I thought I was. And now my parents’ illnesses and inevitable deaths would force me to reassess my identity once again. If my parents died, mine would be the next generation to pass away. Somehow, I would now be officially old.
I ignored the weather outside, my own hunger pangs and the tears in my eyes and in mother’s. I felt helpless. I was in no way prepared to willingly let my father go. Yet, what could I do but sit quietly while I experienced my own fear and pain, awaiting the end. It was a time I would never forget.
Suddenly, I remembered a friend telling me, perhaps as much as thirty years earlier, about his final hours with his own father who lay ill in a bed in South Dakota. Could I muster the same kind of courage that Andrew had shown in the 1980s? I made up my mind to give that behavior a try.
We were not a touchy-feely family, and I can recall almost no soft, tender, physical moments with my father. Once, after attending an emotion-packed workshop designed to get counselors in touch with their feelings, wants and needs, I had cornered my father in his bedroom on Twin Oaks Drive. I swallowed my fears, and I begged my father “Do you love me, Dad?” He blustered, hemmed, and hawed, but in the end, he said simply, “Yes, I love you, son”
And again, in the late 1990s when my younger brother died under mysterious and suspicious circumstances, my father sidled up to me at Richard’s wake, and said almost in a whisper, “A father should never have to bury his son.” As he said these words, he gently laid his head on my shoulder for what seemed like minutes. I muttered a reply that sounded something like, “No, it seems so unfair!” or other innocuous words. This was an unforgettable moment of support and tenderness that I will cherish.
Yet, if this was to be the end for him and for our relationship, then maybe, just maybe, I should take one final opportunity to express the depth of my love for this man. I took a deep breath, and committed myself to take what seemed like a big risk with my father. “Ready or not Dad, here I come.”
But, I am getting ahead of my story here. Let’s hope that Shakespeare (1606) was wrong when he said in Macbeth, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (Act V, Scene V).”
Shakespeare was right about one thing and that is, a life as it transpires is like a play. It contains a series of acts, scenes, and perhaps an intermission or two (and with some refreshments including that old standby, popcorn). Every life has a plot complete with twists and turns, characters, a beginning and an end.
Still, each life has meaning, at least for the one who lives that life. From my early childhood on, I seem to have been concerned about what I stood for, what I wanted to do with my time here on earth. I craved a firm, and preferably succinct, answer to the question, “Who am I?” Perhaps by reflecting on my life, I can answer this pressing question for myself. We shall see!
A writer friend once told me that she always knows a writer when she meets one by how much they talk. Writers like to talk, she says, and when there’s nobody around to listen, they write things down to satisfy that need to express themselves, to be engaging with the world even when alone. That would make most writers extroverts, by standard definition. I would say that’s way too simplistic – Steven Powers Chylinski describes himself as an introvert, drawing his energy from solitude rather than social interaction. Yet he has written a memoir that is both intimate and expansive, illuminating a soul who is very much a social animal, perhaps in spite of himself.
Dr. Powers Chylinski has achieved a delicate balance between describing his own life experiences while treading lightly on the stories and reputations of the people who inhabit his life narrative. Told in slice-of-life vignettes that span his life from childhood to middle age, his tales range from the sad to the bittersweet to the downright painful to the humorous. And he peppers them with fascinating asides about his distant ancestors whose lives he has researched for previous books.
One of Dr. Powers Chylinski’s stated goals in writing this book was to discover his own identity in light of his life experiences and genealogical research. Answering the question Who Am I? leads to other queries – does our identity change over time? Do life experiences alter how we see ourselves? How, if at all, does knowing our ancestry change our self-assessment?
Interest in DNA testing and genetics has exploded in recent years as the technology becomes easily accessible to the public. In this massive world with its ever-growing population, the trend is for people to try to understand where they came from and to connect with the branches of their trees that have followed a different path. I hope readers will enjoy the stories of this professional researcher and identity-seeker, and be inspired to examine their own histories in order to answer essential questions about themselves.
Laura Lehner, MA, MLIS
Hudson, Ohio Library and Historical Society
There are several reasons why I am writing this memoir. One is to discover how, if at all, my sense of identity has changed as a result of both my life experiences and the discoveries I have made about my ancestors. I also want to trace the process by which I appointed myself the family story-teller. And, if by chance I should find the underlying reasons why I first began this investigative journey back decades ago, so much the better.
One facet of acquiring an identity is that as young children we hear various messages about ourselves from the important people in our lives from birth onward. Initially then, we leave it to others to tell us who we are. It is only later in our adolescent years, that we begin to acquire a core identity—an answer to the question, Who Am I?
What I do know about myself is that for the first twenty-five or more years of my life, I generally let others decide my identity and my sense of self-worth for me. And I am not a little embarrassed to admit this. After all, some psychological theories say that by the age of eighteen or so, the development of an identity ought to be mostly completed (Piaget, 1963).
However, for an increasing number of people, finding one’s identity may also involve taking a broader, more inclusive view through family research. While such an effort is not common (yet), it is certainly another tool with which identity-seekers can gather additional data for their search of self.
Yet, supplementing one’s identity through family research is not all fun and games. There are some potential hazards that might play havoc with a researcher’s psyche. Terry Koch-Bostic, the director of the National Genealogical Society, says that roughly one in five genealogical researchers discover a negative surprise in their family tree. She adds, “We all find things that are really shocking and surprising.”
In a separate warning to more advanced genealogists--those who use DNA testing to confirm family relationships or sharpen their sense of identity--Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak says that DNA testing can help find “lost ethnic bloodlines that cross racial lines [which] can [in turn] challenge long-held assumptions about identity.” Smolenyak’s quotation is a repetition of Sue Shellenbarger’s insights found in that same Wall Street Journal article cited above. In short, both Smolenyak and Shellenbarger believe that identity confusion may result for some individuals who take seriously the results of their DNA tests.
In any case, doing genealogical research is a fascinating way to discover one’s roots and potentially to help clarify one’s sense of identity. Whether we look only at the paper trail (documents pertaining to our family that can be found in libraries, courthouses, and more recently online) or if we dig deeper through DNA testing, family research offers interested parties a chance to refine their knowledge of who they are.
But for me, writing this autobiographical memoir also gives me a playing field on which to find how the events of my own life fit together. My memoir also allows me to leave something behind for future generations. Someone, somewhere in time may want to know who I was, what made me tick. And as an added benefit, I may glean what I get out of conducting family research. I am intrigued by the possibility that I do family research in the hope that I will discover more about myself, and especially about my motivations for appointing myself the family historian. Am I trying to feel better about myself? Am I attempting to overcome my inherent shyness? Do I hope to be loved by others if they know who I descend from? Intriguing questions all.
As for the text itself, I have changed nearly all of the names of the people and the names of many of the places cited in my work. I have made these alterations for obvious legal reasons. But just as importantly, I took seriously the words of memoirist Rosie Schaap in her book Drinking With Men. Ms. Schaap (2013) hints at the importance of protecting the reputations of the writer’s fellow travelers when she says rather tersely, “The only person who should look like an asshole in your memoir is you.” I believe I have thoroughly followed Schaap’s advice about reporting my own perceptions of events, leaving it to readers to make their own judgments of the characters who inhabit my memoir. Here’s hoping that I am the only person in my story that I have made to look foolish!