It is hard to identify where the suffering first enters a family — especially because suffering so easily compounds, finding new expressions in each generation, until somebody finally says: stop.
My grandfather on a hunting trip in Alaska, with bear and bald eagle — 1940s
I never met my grandfather, Harry Havemeyer Webb, who died of complications from alcoholism in 1975, a few years before I was born. I know from my mom that he was a sweet and kind-hearted man, but didn’t have the tools to heal himself from his addiction to alcohol, which came into his life in his thirties, many years after his tenure as a service pilot in World War II had concluded.
My grandfather during World War II
By the late 1950s, his marriage to my grandmother, Kate de Forest Jennings, was failing — plagued by infidelity, a lack of intimacy, and a worsening disassociation from one another exacerbated by mutual drinking.
My grandparents and their kids, late 1950s — with my mother in the middle
By the time my grandmother decided to leave him for a swordfishing captain (named George Seemann), his daughters were away at school, and he found himself living alone in the house at High Acres Farm, grappling with isolation and loneliness, and turning more and more to booze as a means of escape.
According to a letter I received from his nephew, my godfather, Sammy B. Webb, Harry suffered from bad PTSD from his time in the War — and would often wake up screaming at night from vivid nightmares of wounded troops crying out in pain from the back of his airplane.
According to Sammy’s letter, Harry would put on his old Air Force uniform at three o’clock in the morning, make himself a cocktail, and walk around the house, alone.
I felt haunted by this image, and by the legacy of his unprocessed trauma, which I knew affected all of us in many untraceable ways. I knew that his suffering was still stalking the house, and that it somehow needed to be cleared.
I sit up suddenly, screaming, and stumble across the hallway into his dressing room, where I step into his old uniform, which fits me more or less perfectly. I go into his old bathroom, look in his mirror, put on his tie, and clip it into place. I fasten his monogrammed belt buckle to tighten his pants.
My grandfather’s mirror
I go downstairs, moving through the empty house, finding my way to the bar closet that continued to display his collection of alcohol, even forty years after his death.
I sit down between his hunting trophies, and thumb through a stack of his photographic memories — parents, childhood, sports, lovers, wedding, war, children, divorce, solitude — making his memories my own.
Then the flashes shift to the outside lawn, where his old red parachute is spread across the dying grass, littered with alcohol bottles and “action figures” tumbling through the ground, as I writhe around in this historical detritus.
I gather up the parachute and proceed to the old red “Trophy Room” building at the edge of the woods, which is hung with animal heads killed by Harry and his parents during family hunting trips to Alaska in the 1930s and 40s.
The room is lit by the same twin sets of halogen work lights from Use a Hammer and Hall of Mirrors — illuminating a brown bear, a moose, a caribou, two rams, several deer, a bobcat, a porcupine, and an owl. The animals watch as I arrange the alcohol bottles in orderly lines on the floor.
I stand one of my childhood G.I. Joe figures at attention in front of each bottle — linking my experience of war with his.