Sunday, July 10, 2016

GENE STRACHAN: the family drama

Eugene Strachan, Paul Strachan, Thomas Strachan and Bruce Strachan
1962 at 5103 NE Fifteenth in Portland, OR
Thomas was my father's uncle, Gene was Thomas' son.
Paul was my younger brother.

Some years ago I was contacted by Eugene Strachan, the son of my great-uncle.  To sort this out a bit for you, I’ll use real names.  Archibald Strachan, my great-grandfather, emigrated to America with his three grown children.  Once he was established in South Dakota on a homestead, his wife had a son, Thomas, with beautiful blonde curls, the archetype of a beloved child.  Things did not go well in South Dakota because of drought, and Archibald had to fall back on his master carpenter skills, which was okay.  His oldest son, Sam, had been educated in Scotland and became a teacher and school superintendent in South Dakota, then farmed, sold farm machinery, and moved to Portland, OR, where he became my grandfather.

The little boy named Thomas grew up and married a Norwegian woman.  They too had a rocky economic time until Thomas became an agricultural agent who specialized in grasses and forbs.  He had four children: Marvin, Janet, Marjorie and Eugene

Gene's car was a Mercedes.

Three were conventional but Eugene, after a failed marriage, and a WWII tour in New Guinea as airplane mechanic, spent his life keeping books for mining companies as far as I know.  When he called me, he was old and was “keeping books” on the genealogy of his family.  He sent me two handwritten, xeroxed, comb-bound books with all the records he had found.  They are useful.

Janet worked overseas for the Diplomatic Corps, married late and died of cancer.
This is Janet in 1965 with her father, possibly on her wedding day.

Gene wanted to come to Valier because when we broke up my mother’s estate, which included my father’s photos, I took them to protect and possibly use for my own research.  There was a specific photo of a house built by Archibald that Gene wanted to see in order to confirm a distant memory.  I didn’t want him to come.  I live in a necessity-based way that I had learned was far below the standards of my cousins, who are comfortable Pacific Coast people.

The more I argued, the more Gene insisted and then sent me a check for $500 which he described as my inheritance coming early.  Until then he had not mentioned that he would have a companion, a Shoshone full-blood grandmother who had been his “girl-friend” for years.  He was very coy about whether they would share a bed, so I was stumped about whether to put them in my so-called “bunkhouse,” a shed with two single beds that had no bathroom, or my own double bed which has a foam rubber slab for a mattress.  In the end it was clear that they were both unsteady on their feet and otherwise frail.  In fact, Gene was exhausted after lunch, needing a reclining chair which I don't have.  I don’t even have a sofa long enough to lie down on.  He did not want to go back to the bed, so I propped him up on my short sofa with a pile of pillows.

His companion — when I described the tricks of the shower, demanded to know whether I bleached it every day.  I can’t remember EVER bleaching it, but she had been trained to meet hospital standards, a matter of energy and sterilization taught to staff by nurses and administrators who had no intention of doing it themselves.  

She was a “little people,” like all the missionary-trained NA people in the 19th century who cleaned and waited on superiors.  Such folks can internalize the high standards of the people who taught them.  Now she saw I was a very deficient white person when it comes to housekeeping.  Gene never noticed.  But she was very unhappy in Valier and not happy either when I drove them all over the rez.  We’d pass a thriving ranch and she’d ask,  “Who does that belong to?”  They all belonged to Blackfeet which made her bristle with rivalry.  The Shoshone tribe ended up way down the economic scale.  She was a woman with pride which, I suppose, was why she was consorting with a white man. 

I fed them Hamburger Helper and, while I washed the dishes (I don't have a dishwasher), set them up with a funny video that was a takeoff on WWII concentration camps featuring cartoon chickens.  Otherwise, my video collection tends to French angst with sub-titles.  I don’t have television because I don’t want it and because the antenna blew over. 

The Sam Strachans leave for Manitoba

By the third day the grandmother was desperate to go home and Gene was plainly in major pain from a “sprained back.”  At last I found the photo Gene wanted: it was a mansard-roof house with tall windows and the photo was taken when someone left, maybe my grandfather’s family going north to try raising potatoes in Manitoba.  It must have been emotional time that impressed Gene as a child.  I myself was impatient because I wanted to get back to my own projects.

The date of Gene’s visit is easily established.  My neighbor came rushing over to tell us about 9/11, the attack on the World Trade Towers.  She invited us to watch on their TV, but my company was shy.  Gene was desperate to know what was happening and to see the videos.  I set him up with the computer and he watched over and over.  I knew we’d be seeing those images for the rest of our lives.  Gene was trying to figure out some way he could re-enlist, a frail old man with a bad back.  And he was all for reinstating the TV antenna himself, then and there.

They went home the next morning.  Already packed and waiting in the car, the grandmother realized she had forgotten to take her pills and demanded a glass of water.  I got it, but I had run the tap to get cold water and she said it should have been lukewarm.  They got home safely, though later the grandmother was going between houses on the rez and was knocked down by dogs, which hurt her seriously.  As I write, 2016, they have both been dead for a while.  Gene’s bad back turned out to be stomach cancer and within the year he died in hospice.  His sibs were all gone except Marjorie and he had no children.   I wondered if I'd have felt differently when he visited if I'd known he had terminal cancer.

The genealogy is often useful, though I use it quite differently than he did.  I look for patterns.  The most interesting story was not about Strachans but about a branch named Gillis, which had a Masterpiece Theatre plot I told on the post dated Monday, January 12, 2015, entitled “Gene Strachan’s Quest for the Gillis Branch.”  Interesting photos there. 

I’m not sure what I think about Gene and his visit.  I admire his sudden burst of what was surely "Kinko Publishing".  He made several copies of the two books he sent me and also sent the information to cousins.

His idea about Uncle Thomas, who was idolized by the rest of the family, was quite different.  At one point Thomas had managed to get a job as the town’s water-master which meant maintaining pumps and so on.  When Gene was a small boy he went with the father and they found the electrical pump was in a pool of standing water.  Thomas wanted the boy to turn off the pump — he would have to stand in the water to do it.  Somehow Gene knew it was dangerous and interpreted it as his father being careless with his son’s life.  

As a boy Gene was sent to work for a neighboring farmer and that man was shocked that he brought no lunch with him, so provided a lunch, and Gene interpreted this as his father’s neglect again.  He told these stories as an old man with high resentment as intense as if they happened last month.
This was not Gene's mother.  This Ida Strachan lived in Africa. 
But she seems to match his idealization of his mother.

His family research began with his beloved mother, named Ida.  In his mind her resourcefulness and love was all that saved the family from the fecklessness of Thomas.  He himself married late to an older woman and they soon divorced.  I suspect he was looking for Ida and didn’t find her.  He attached her virtues to being Norwegian and Thomas' flaws to being Scots.  

It’s all an old familiar story -- do you remember that John Murie's father nearly killed him by making him dig a well so deep that it filled with gas?  But Gene's bitter tale reveals how ideas we develop in youth can control our lives forever after and close doors — maybe protective ones.  

But I love yanking doors open to check out skeletons.  So it’s clear that early on I must have been rewarded by finding out things, but I think that came from my mother's side -- she was a Pinkerton.  It does not make friends.  But pretty good detectives.

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