Photo of Jamie Stewart by david horvitz
During World War II, my paternal grandpa, "Pop" was too old to be in the army so he began to work in a bombsight factory. Prior to this, he had been a jockey and was a harness racer. Those are small two-wheeled carts that the jockey sits in low behind the horse. Jockeys at that time were considered dirty people and were not allowed to go into most restaurants or bars so they had all their own places to eat and get drunk.
My paternal grandmother was a debutante and came from very crazy, very old money. She had a terrifying relationship with her mother and in an attempt to shock her, married my grandpa. For doing this, she was disowned, cut out of her inheritance and her allowance. When they were married, my grandpa was scraping by as a jockey. When the war started things improved slightly but by then they had 4 children. After the war ended they did not need anyone to build bombsights anymore. Being a jockey was like being in the music business, it was about luck and who you knew. He had been out of the game for 5 years and did not have contacts anymore. He could not get work harness racing. He hung out at the stables and became a bitter, violent and dangerously poor man.
Due to this poverty, my grandmother became a frightened and desperate woman. She had not spoken to her incredibly wealthy mother in several years and needed to beg her for money to feed her children. My great grandmother agreed to send them money but only if my grandmother's daughter, my aunt, then 12 years old, would go and live with my great grandmother and never speak to my grandmother nor the rest of the family until she was 18. She was effectively ransoming her to torment and break the heart of my grandmother in revenge for her having married my grandpa.
To feed her other children, my grandmother agreed to sell her daughter to her own mother. This infuriated my other aunt, who was 10 years old at this time. She was furious, not because she would miss her sister, but because her sister would be going to go live in a mansion by the ocean in San Diego while she had to live in a tiny rented house in Pomona with her crumbling parents and two brothers, my father and my uncle.
On the last night that the entire family was to eat together for the next 6 years, my aunt who had to stay was helping my grandmother prepare dinner. She was using a cleaver to chop vegetables. My grandmother had her back turned to her preparing a fish. My aunt said,"Hey mom, watch this." When my grandmother turned around, my aunt chopped off two of her own fingers with the cleaver she was using to cut the vegetables. The next day, her older sister was picked up in a brown rolls royce and driven away.
Her fingers were never reattached. I do not ever remember seeing my aunt without a pair of crutches or ever looking like she weighed more than 90 lbs. She had a son that she abandoned at the age of two. I do not know if this is true, but she claimed that her husband was lost in the Bermuda Triangle. She had a small medical gold pin that she wore on a bracelet and that she claimed was used to fix her husband's jaw together when it was broken in a fight. Her husband was apparently hard of hearing and sometimes talked too loudly. A sailor told him to shut up and he thought the sailor said stand up. When he did, the sailor hit him in the face with a black jack.
My aunt who was taken away went on to travel widely in her youth, married an Egyptian man and gave birth to my cousin. He is an autistic savant. His brain operates like a computer and he can remember and recall any information but seems to be unable to generate original thoughts. He has been alive long enough now that he can get through most conversations using previous memories.
When he was a child, he was visiting relatives in Scotland who happened to own a bagpipe. Although he had never seen one before, he picked it up and played it perfectly. He went on to win bagpipe competitions all over Europe. In his teens, he taught bagpipe master classes in Scotland. Once he came over for Christmas and marched around the house playing "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night" on the bagpipe. He and I went to the same university in San Francisco. I ran into him on campus and although I had not seen him in about a year and half the first thing he said to me was, "Have you seen my jacket?"
He was studying pre-med there and is now a ophthalmologist. His mind makes it impossible for him to do research but he was at the top of his class in school as he can remember everything. He is a very pious Muslim and he and his father, with whom he lives, are traveling back and forth to Egypt to find him an appropriate bride. His mother died a few years ago. The other aunt is dead also. My uncle is dead and my father is dead.