On Being a Blood
The once proud and busy school building, now dilapidated and deserted, stood silently awaiting its demise in the hot Montana sun. It was a sad and sorry sight with its dirty faded bricks, boarded windows, and lonely empty playground. Just a hint of a hopscotch pattern remained on the broken blacktop where I once played.
I was there to take one last look at that school, after hearing at the class reunion I was attending, that it soon would be demolished. It was 1999, and I had not been back to Billings, my old hometown, for many years. Fifty years had passed since I first entered the doors of that school. It was there that I learned to read and write, carried out papers with gold stars, and made my first friends in life. Could I have once been that small girl who despite her mothers best efforts always looked a bit lopsided? Yes, I was the one who always had one of the suspenders that held up her plaid pleated skirt slipping off her shoulder, whose hair bow was always a little crooked, and whose brown-cotton-long stockings always wrinkled around her ankles. If that wasnt bad enough, my last name was Blood. I was a timid girl with an unusual last name. An easy target for cruel kids.
I stood on there on the old playground, and as I often do when encountering a piece of my childhood, I began thinking about my name, my family, and what it meant to be a Blood. When I was seven years old, I thought being a Blood was the most terrible fate that could have befallen me. It was on that old playground that some of my classmates used to taunt, "Bloody Sharon! Here comes Bloody Sharon." I hated those words. I hated my name. And I hated Johnny.
Johnny was a mean boy. A seven-year-old tyrant. He made my young life miserable. Adults called this second-grade menace cute. And he certainly did have a way of looking angelic. Dark curly hair surrounded his cherubic face. Hed look up with big eyes, and smile innocently at our teacher. She loved him. Believe mehe was no angel! Making sure that the teacher wasnt looking, hed lean towards me and whisper, "You better run when school is out Blood, cause I'm gonna beat you up." I believed the brat, and sat gripped by fear the rest of the day. When the closing bell rang, Id bolt out the door and start running. Flailing his arms and shouting names, "Devil Boy" ran close behind. I knew that if he ever caught me, he would batter me beyond recognition. I ran faster. I had to get away from him. Somehow I always made it home. Flinging open the door to our house, I cried out, "Mom that mean Johnny is chasing me, and hes calling me names." "Oh ignore him. He likes you," shed say. Easy for her to say. She wasnt the one fearing for her life.
One day I noticed Johnny looking at me with an evil glint in his eye. His wicked grin told me that he was up to no good. I was sure that he had thought of some new way to harass me. And I was right. That was the day he started to call me, "Bloody Sharon." Worse yet, he got some of the other kids calling me that too. Now, there were more tormentors. My life was miserable. My heart was broken.
One day I could take no more. Sobbing, I went to my dad, and cried out my misery. "Daddy, our name is terrible. Why cant we change it? Wouldnt it be better to have a nice easy name? How about Smith, Jones, or Anderson?" My dad was rarely displeased with his favored little girl. I got away with things that my brothers never could. But this time Id gone too far. He ground his cigarette into the ashtray, sighed heavily, and gave me "that look."
I knew that look. Dad was a proud, loyal, and honest man. He was not educated, but he was clever. His friendly ways made him the most popular bus driver in town. There was, however, this one thing about him. My dad cussed. He cussed when he tied his shoes. He cussed when he dropped a tool. He cussed when he was mad, and he cussed when was happy. As a matter of fact, he just liked to cuss. Some men sing in the shower. My dad cussed. "Are you going to cuss Daddy?" I asked sweetly.
"Damm it Sherry," he said, "I wont cuss!" But of course he did. It was clear that he would never consider changing our name. "Sherry, Blood is a fine name. Why on earth would we want some common name? The Bloods were among the first to come to America. Our men have fought in all the wars. And a Blood was one of the first to fall at Bunker Hill." (It didnt surprise me that a Blood would be among the first to rush in to get killed.) "Tell those mean kids that you are a descendant of Captain Blood. Thatll shut them up." He was quite taken with the Rafael Sabatini book and Errol Flynn movie about the famous Captain Blood. It pleased him to be related to a swashbuckling pirate. A Robin Hood of the sea. I felt better. I liked having that kind of ancestor. I bet there were no pirates in that mean Johnnys family.
The next day Johnny, the terrible, started his daily torment. Looking at him with contempt, I snarled, "You better watch out because one of my ancestors was a pirate named Captain Blood."
The rascal refused to admit that he was impressed, but I could see that Id shocked him. He never expected me to talk back. Suddenly I felt brave. I started thinking of all the evil things I could do with his last name, Schino, but I put those thoughts aside for another day. I had something much more important to do on that day.
When the school bell rang, I walked out the door. Johnny was ready to give chase. "You better run Bloody Sharon, I am going to get you," he called, as he stomped his feet against the pavement. Looking back, I gave him the most menacing look I could muster, and kept on walking. My heart was beating double-time, my cheeks were hot and flushed, and my legs were weak and rubbery. I wasnt at all sure that I was going to make it home alive. But I was not going to run. The baffled Johnny didnt know what to do. Finally he threw up his arms in disgust, mumbled that hed get me some other day, turned and walked away. Victory was sweet! The little redhead, descended from the great Captain Blood, no longer feared the tyrant.
That day was a turning point. To be sure kids continued to tease me about my name, and I would get my feelings hurt. But standing up to that bully had given me some badly needed confidence. Johnny went on to find a new victim, and I gradually learned to take some of the inevitable teasing in stride. As I got older, I realized there was value in having a distinctive name. No one ever forgot my name, or got me confused with someone else. And I was sure that those kids, who made fun of my name, came from dull ordinary families, that were not nearly as fun and interesting as my family was.
And being a Blood was an experience like no other. There were fifteen in my dads immediate family. So I had many aunts, uncles and cousins. Most of our relatives lived in Minnesota, and thats where we traveled every summer on vacation. We always stayed at my Uncle Pats house in Crosby. When we arrived all the Blood clan crowded into his small house to see us. What great gatherings we had there. This was a family that lived with gusto. Eating. Drinking. Singing. Dancing. The Bloods did it all.
Big people with big appetites. They loved their food, and they loved their beer and whiskey. There was no such thing as eating just a little. How did they want their food cooked? Why, fried, of course. The oak table in my uncles kitchen was always loaded with platters of fried chicken, home baked bread, bowls of potato salad, steaming crocks of baked beans, and mounds of cold cuts. A big metal tub filled with ice, beer, and pop sat on the kitchen floor. On the counter sat bottles of all kinds of liquor, and mixes. They ate and drank with reckless abandon. They loved parties, and how they could party!
Their parties were loud, and the noise coming from my uncles house must have driven the neighbors crazy. All of those gigantic people talked at the same time. There wasnt a quiet one in the bunch. Some would laugh, and some would quarrel. With these emotional and opinionated people, feuds were inevitable. Usually the fights didnt last long. Everyone would hug and make up, and go back to the fun.
There was always a storytelling time. They loved to tell stories and recite poetry. Each one would try to out-do the other. They filled my uncles living room with laughter, drama and excitement. All it took was a few beers, and Dad, showman that he was, would begin reciting, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." I can still hear his baritone voice:
Not only did they tell stories, but they filled that little house with music. The Bloods all were musical, but Dad was the true entertainer of the family. He played piano and accordion by ear. And my how he could sing. He taught me to sing with him when I was barely three, and despite the fact I was shy, he always got me to sing with him. Never did any of those parties end without my dad and I doing a rousing rendition of, "Ive been Working on the Railroad."
And the Bloods moved to the music as they sang. Heavy people with light feet, all delighted in dancing. I remember Aunt Lou, who must have weighed close to 200 pounds, hitching up her skirt to do a mean Irish Jig. It was at one of these parties my Uncle Pat taught me how to waltz. "Sherry," he said, "girls gotta know how to waltz." And so while my dad played waltzes, Pat taught me to dance. His strong voice counted, "ONE two three. ONE two three." I was embarrassed a first. I was somewhat like my small conservative mother, and often found this side of my family overwhelming. But it didnt take long for the movement and music to take hold before I was experiencing the pure joy of it. It was fun, and I felt so special. It was then that I realized that yes, I was a Blood too. I was one of them.
Whatever else you can say about the Bloods, you can never call us dull. As I grew older, I wanted to know more about my party-loving family. Id heard all the stories, but were they true? I wanted to know if our ancestors were as colorful and dramatic as we were. I set out to verify some facts for myself. I learned that there was a Captain Blood. But being his descendent is a rather dubious distinction. Not the romantic pirate portrayed in the book and movie, he was none-the-less colorful. Hed been a respected naval officer in England, until he sullied his reputation by trying to steal the Crown Jewels. Dressed as a Friar he managed to get by the guards, make his way to the Castle tower, and snatch the jewels. They caught him on his way out. History calls it the "Crown Jewel Caper."
But the good Captain was an audacious fellow. The silver-tongued devil so impressed the King that he let him off, and even restored his ownership of lands in Ireland. The "gift of gab" seems to have always run in the family. From what I can tell he is by far our familys favorite ancestor. It was the Captains older brother, Richard, who was the first Blood to come to America in 1634.
Learning my familys history brought me greater sense of family. But it wasnt until I was much older, the happy parties long ago over, and most of my dads brothers and sisters gone, that I truly understood how much being a Blood meant to me. We were visiting my brother, who lives in Boston. He took us to the Bunker Hill Memorial. I knew from my dads stories and the history I had studied that a Blood had died at Bunker Hill. But there something about seeing the name engraved on that monument that gave our family history a true reality. I felt so proud.And the next day my brother drove us to a small cemetery nestled next to an old, picturesque, tall-steepled church, in Mason, New Hampshire. The little graveyard was a peaceful place, surrounded by a low stone wall. We had come on a sparkling New England day that was picture-post-card pretty. The trees around us blazed red, yellow, and orange. The leaves crackled beneath our feet, and the aroma of wood smoke was in the air. We had come to see family. We had come to read the stories of the Bloods who were buried there.
What stories that old cemetery had to tell. Some of the graves were over 300 years old. We read each stone. The epitaphs left us laughing one minute and teary the next. There were Bloods who had died at all different ages. We read their stories, from those sad little stones that only read "Baby," to the stones of those who had lived to see old age. Some stories were inspirational, some serious, and some funny. One of our ancestors was an early Harvard graduate and a pastor. Inspiring and fine words were etched on his stone. And then there was Effram Blood. His stone read: Here lies Effram Blood. We loved him. But he died. Maybe Effram had been a fine fellow loved by all, but so sick even love could not save him. But it could be that Effram was mean and spiteful. They gave him love, and the wretch went ahead and died anyway.
Laughing about the tombstone, the others left to look at the church. I lingered there alone. It was peaceful. I sat on the wall for awhile. Then I walked past the graves one more time. The wind blew through my hair, and the memories blew through my mind. I remembered the timid little girl who was so humiliated by her name. I could hear my dad cussing. I could hear him reciting "Dan McGrew." I could hear us singing together. I could hear Uncle Pat counting, "ONE two three. ONE two three." All the laughter and music of the Bloods surrounded me. I was walking with old friends.