My father was an alcoholic. He died from cirrhosis of the liver 28 years ago.1
I recently watched the episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (US) that featured Sean Patrick Hayes, and was fascinated by the trail of Irishmen who drank too much and ended up leaving families behind to cope that they documented for him. It inspired me to take another look at the topic in my family.
I have enough distance from the issue now to be more objective about what I’m seeing when I analyze my ancestors. It turns out what I found wasn’t at all what I expected to find. When I looked at the evidence from the perspective of a genealogist instead of a descendant, the vague beliefs were clarified. I knew I had other alcoholics in my lineage, but to be truthful, they weren’t really where I thought they’d be, and it led me to form an entirely new conclusion.
You see my father’s father was not an alcoholic. His vice was cigars. However, his father, John Wesley Basford did have a drinking problem, that was the death of him.
John Wesley owned the first Barber shop in Ravenwood, Missouri.
Family lore, brought down through multiple branches of the family, states that John was alone in the Barber shop, attending to the fire one night. He passed out drunk on the floor and took a chill that became pneumonia. He died of pneumonia a few days later.2 He was only 37 when he died and left behind a widow, Anna, and 4 children ages 15, 10, 5 and 1. Anna was a dressmaker. The two oldest children (Nellie and my grandfather) are shown in the 1900 census as strippers in a cigar factory (that my grandfather would later own).3
It is unknown if John Wesley’s father Ransom had a drinking problem; we know one of Ransom’s brothers did. Ransom died at age 28, probably of tuberculosis, leaving John Wesley an orphan at age 8. John Wesley was raised by his grandparents Jonathan S. (previous post) and Guly. I’ve found no evidence of drinking being a problem in any of the previous generations. As things stand now, I’m going to speculate that alcoholism was an aberration in my paternal line.
Taking a look at my maternal line was an eye-opener. The women didn’t drink, but the men they married all had problems with booze. That doesn’t happen by accident.
My mother didn’t know her father Francis all that well. When she speaks of him, she basically spits out the words. She was petrified of him because he was a mean drunk. She lived with his parents for a few years during her childhood, and spent most of her time hiding from him in the barn when he came around. Her parents weren’t married, so most of her childhood was spent with her mother and grandmother. Her encounters with her father left a deep and lasting impression on her, and I’m convinced that unconsciously influenced her attraction to my father.
But what influenced my grandmother Doris’ attraction to Francis, a mean drunk who was unfaithful to his wife Marie?
He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed German. Like most alcoholics, I suspect he mastered the charming child presentation, which any woman shopping around for a father figure to fix would find irresistible. Near as I can piece together, it was a pretty intense romance. He even left his wife briefly to live with her when Doris was pregnant.4 [Insert Soap Opera script here.]
The root of Doris’ need for an alcoholic in her life leaps off the death certificate of her father, Clyde Francis Watson: Chronic Nephritis at age 57.5
These days that diagnosis tends to be attached to renal failure caused by overuse of Tylenol and/or ibuprofen. Family lore likes to sugar coat this diagnosis by calling it Bright’s Disease, but back in the 1930’s it was code for chronic alcohol abuse.
There’s Clyde, a blond-haired, blue eyed, charming Scotch-Irishman who was unfaithful to his wife. I could point out that his father, William M. Watson also has a death certificate that reads Chronic Interstitial Nephritis,6 but because he saw action and was injured in the Civil War, and I need to learn more about his life, I’m going to give him a pass if he abused alcohol (he was in pain his whole adult life). Instead I’m going to focus on the previous statement, “…who was unfaithful to his wife.” Wow, did that cause a lot of problems for a lot of descendents over the years. Now we’re to the real reason why this cycle began.
Here’s the culprit:
See what I did there? I deliberately picked the most nefarious look for him. Yes, it was a studio picture, and those weren’t his clothes, but it’s emblematic of his rough and ready, hard-drinking railroad worker he was. His drinking did a number on my great-grandmother, Julia. He died at the age of 55, and yes, it says Nephritis on his death certificate.7 That’s backed up by family lore that he was a drunk.
One of the key characteristics of children of alcoholics is a hyper-sensitivity to betrayal. My great-grandmother was an extreme example of someone who exhibited a self-righteous lack of forgiveness–to the point of vindictiveness–toward anyone she perceived as causing her to feel betrayed. Julia was set up by her father’s drunkenness to choose a mate who drank. She not only never forgave her father, but she never forgave Clyde, and by extension all males as a result. After Clyde divorced her and married his girlfriend, Julia never remarried. To my knowledge, she didn’t even date. She basically swore off men for the rest of her very long life. She must have held some kind of record back then for years as a divorcée—50 years.
The main conclusion I drew from this exercise is that non-drinkers are just as capable of being the carriers of this destructive disease as drinkers. Carl messed up Julia with his drinking > Julia married an alcoholic who messed up Doris > Doris hooked up with a mean drunk who messed up my mother > my mother married an alcoholic who…well you get the picture.
There is a silver lining to this cloud, though. None of my parents’ descendents have issues with alcohol. The cycle has been broken. Just like Sean Patrick Hayes who learned he could forgive his father after learning about his family’s pattern of abandonment, I learned to forgive as well. Sometimes family history can help us heal.
1 Texas Department of State Health Services death certificate
2 obits from Nodaway Democrat 2 Mar 1899 and Ravenwood Gazette from unpublished Arza Bozwell obit collection
3 1900 US Census, Missouri, Nodaway, Maryville, Ward 4, ED 123, pg 15A, ln 33
4 Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989
5 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Death Certificate.
6 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Death Certificate.
7 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Death Certificate.