Dear Jay and Gina: An Open Letter

The five “increasingly savage paragraphs” of this obituary were published in the Redwood Falls [MN] Gazette on June 4. That same day, Stu @RandBallsStu posted it on Twitter. By the time I heard about it three days later on All Things Considered, it had been read by hundreds of thousands of people and written about in respected news media across the globe. Responses have ranged from humor to outrage, from “honor thy father and mother” to “hell YESSS!” and “love it!” Devotees of social media have dredged up the entire family tree, and Jay Dehmalo (he changed his name–ever so slightly!–to avoid association with his past) has subsequently shared more sordid family secrets. This post is my open letter to these two self-absorbed siblings who decided that the record of their mother’s youthful indiscretions and their longing for her death belonged in the tabloids–including the Daily Mail.

Dear Jay and Gina,

First, let me say that I am sorry for your loss–no, not that loss. On second thought, even the intended focus of my condolences wasn’t a loss because you didn’t lose all semblance of human decency; you willfully discarded it. And no, I’m not really sorry for you, but for us, those who had to witness your public nastiness because that’s the kind of thing that makes the news these days. Even on NPR.

Something else bothers me. I realize that our language has no word for adult offspring, so the news media who made the dubious decision to publish your tawdry story had no choice for their headlines but to conjure up images of two chubby-cheeked innocents:

  • Children deliver harsh send-off
  • Children strike back at absentee mother
  • Woman’s kids pen savage obituary
  • Kids write spiteful obituary for mom who abandoned them

But you, Jay and Gina, are no longer children. You are 58 and 60–Baby Boomers like me, and all three of us are old enough to know better. Yes, you were once 2- and 4-year-old poppets whose mother ran off to California with Uncle Lyle. But you had loving grandparents who gave you a home, and I am sure they taught you about self-respect and family privacy. They may even have taught you, as my grandmother taught me, that “fools’ names, like fools’ faces, are often seen in public places.”

I don’t know much about Joseph and Gertrude Schunk, so I don’t know if they were stern enough grammarians to have taught you about the apostrophes in the Thomas Fuller aphorism, but I know they taught you about personal responsibility. They raised their children during the Great Depression and taught them that to succeed, they must triumph over adversity. Of course, they may have been more indulgent with you two because of your unfortunate beginnings, but they didn’t raise you to blame others for your own mistakes. And I’m sure that if they were here now, they would shake their heads and say, “You should ashamed of yourselves.”

But in 2018, shaming has become a punishable offense, and blaming has become a media carnival, a spectator sport, and a courtroom drama. Just search for #MeToo if you don’t believe me. So you are not ashamed of making your mother’s death and your family’s dirty linen a public spectacle. And you gleefully bask in your 15 minutes of fame as you blame your mother’s failures as a wife and mother for your own actions as two “bad kids” and at least one adult convicted criminal behavior. You are the perfect victims in this age when victimhood is de rigueur.

What I am sorry about–in addition to the fact that this story was found fit to print in our self-indulgent age–is the number of missed opportunities I can discover in your stories. If you had to use your mother’s obituary for personal vituperation, you could at least have simultaneously noted how fortunate you were that your grandparents took you in. If your mother was indeed the unfit parent you claim, you could perhaps have even thanked her for leaving you in the care of your grandparents.

Had you been made of sterner stuff, though, you might have used your unique circumstances to become what wise men from Carl Jung to Henri Nouwen have identified as wounded healers. First and foremost, you could have established loving relationships and raised children of your own, to whom you would have provided the secure and joyful family life you were deprived of as children. You could have taken the insights you gained as motherless children to help those in similar circumstances–as psychologists, social workers, Sunday school teachers, or simply warm and compassionate family friends. You could have used the hard-won lessons borne of affliction as blessings to others.

That’s what my own mother did. She was the seventh of eight children born to Charlie and Elma Culpepper between 1908 and 1928. Not only did they live through the Depression; they did so as sharecroppers in the Oklahoma dustbowl. Elma died when her youngest two children were 16 and 12. But those girls who picked okra until their hands bled and wore shoes held together with baling wire lived their lives as examples of how to overcome misfortune. My mother made sure her daughters had piano lessons, won the spelling bee, knew how to punctuate appositives spell judgment, behaved responsibly, and took the blame and the credit for their own actions. She wanted us to have enough because she did not; more important, she wanted us to enjoy what we had. She insisted that we never call people vile names because she knew from being a dirty Okie what pain such names could cause. Best of all, she taught us the values learned during her hardscrabble childhood and expected us to live by them.

She was not a perfect woman. She smoked and drank herself to death–Benson & Hedges and Budweiser. She didn’t take a bath for the last ten years of her life and cleaned her house even less often. She refused to talk to me on the telephone during her last several months because, I learned after her death, she had disowned me. She had few friends left to attend her funeral because she had withdrawn from the world and into her bitterness. However, when I wrote her obituary, I respected her privacy, honored the memory of her life, and maintained the dignity of our family.

On second thought, Gina and Jay, I am sorry for you–sorry that you have spent your lives being so bitter about a remote event in your childhood that you had to “finally get the last word” against an 80-year-old woman and, in the words of your Aunt Judy, “hurt the family tremendously.” I hope you can overcome your singleminded and self-centered focus on what happened to you as children.

I hope you live long enough to learn that forgiveness is the only path to healing and wholeness.

Shalom,

Vicki

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