We are selves. But we are also vessels. We evolve and devolve. We do each other honor and sometimes offense. The seeds of the future are within each of us, along with inherited wounds and dreams. Times change. Society changes. My mother’s feminism and egalitarianism, combined with my father’s alcoholic breakdown, encouraged my older sibs and me to reject many of our grandfathers’ ideas, especially their dreams of dynasty. We defied their prejudices about class, race, place, morality, and material success. Service and art became our goals. In fact, the strongest influences on me, my children, and their children have been my mother, my mother-in-law, and my wife.
To me, both my grandfathers were rich. They were generous. They had drinking problems. They had social ambitions. Starting from farm backgrounds, they had risen in the world and made names for themselves. They were successes. They were Presbyterian. They were heads and patriarchs of families, loyal to their wives. They were disappointed in sons they considered weak.
Both claimed Irish roots (along with some Welsh and Scottish). Both attended business schools. Both married young to relatively non-intellectual women (as depicted by Mom): a “hausfrau” in her father’s case; a Sister Carrie, on Dad’s side.
DeWitt P. Henry had been supported by his father in founding a candy factory; he also followed his father’s example as a local civic leader. Jerome Thralls, in contrast, seemed driven by shame for his father, who had deserted their large family. Unlike DeWitt, Jerome prided himself on being self-made. Both were organizers and innovators. Both were personable, resourceful, tenacious, and able to persuade their peers to collaborate. Both were products of America’s Gilded Age and the Progressive Generation. Both cast long shadows.
Grandpop Henry died when I was seven. As his namesake, I inherited such monogramed items as a.humidor, a gold-plated pocket watch, tie clasps, cufflinks and leather brief cases. I also felt important to see my name on the stationery and candy wrappers from the factory. The factory was his legacy, first for my father and then for any of us who sought to take over when my father retired (none of us did, so eventually my father sold out). I belonged to the third generation of Henrys to be raised in Wayne, PA.
Grandpop Thralls, who owned a Wall Street brokerage and lived in Brooklyn, I visited a few times with Mom. I was seventeen when he died. My mother was his executrix and brought home his papers in four heavy filing cabinets. She narrowed these down to two storage boxes of various items, which she passed to me in case I wanted to write about our family. Clearly, he had prided himself on himself, and meant to be remembered, both by us and by the world.
DeWitt Henry’s books include The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts (winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel); a trilogy in memoir concluding with Endings and Beginnings: Family Essays (MadHat Press, 2021); and a collection of notes and essays Sweet Majoram (MadHat Press, 2018). Poems have appeared in Ibbetson Street, On the Seawall, Plume, and others. He was the founding editor of Ploughshares and is Professor Emeritus at Emerson College. Details at www.dewitthenry.com. DeWitt recommends contributing to Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.