The last week in January brought the death of a relative who has loomed large in my consciousness of family despite his diminishing physical presence in my life through the decades. My outlaw cousin, whom I will not name here out of concern for his children and grandchildren, died a natural death after a long life of theft, fraud, and trickery. I don’t know whether he made a deathbed conversion, but by his continuing offenses, he seemed to prove himself beyond the reach of rehabilitation. He had done time in prison, where he allegedly made new contacts and refined his skills in trafficking stolen car parts. As recently as two years ago, at age 80, he was arrested for disorderly conduct, and he was the object of recent calls to the police. Booking and charging and trying him had become too costly, and both the police and the county sheriff had switched to pre-emption: watching him, anticipating his crimes, persuading him to return stolen objects. In fact, the community was on alert. When he brought an elderly, senile relative to the bank to withdraw money from his account, the teller phoned another cousin to let her know he was up to something. The warning came too late: he had already secured the deed to the elderly relative’s house and emptied it of any valuables.
I could never document all his misbehavior, which began in childhood, and I don’t mean to try. I am left curious about how a person comes to be this way, and how his habits and his reputation affect the lives of those close to him. Part of the puzzle is that he never alienated himself from family (though some kept a salutary distance), but stayed present in its circle, showing up faithfully at family occasions. The cynic in me can say that family occasions are prime sites for purses to go unattended, and that familiarity and trust make the con easier to accomplish. Yet I don’t think that’s the whole story. I want to think the attachment mattered to him in some deeper way.
My cousin was the classic bad seed and the classic unwanted child–or so the family story goes. He was born to my young, unmarried aunt who was expected to leave him at the distant welfare home to be adopted. She didn’t. Some say that she brought him home as a bargaining chip, hoping that his father would marry her and that her parents would accept this marriage to someone they thought a good-for-nothing hellion. Later she married someone else and had three more sons, all upstanding citizens. When my cousin became too unruly for that household, he was sent to my grandparents, and when he misbehaved too badly there, he was sent home to his mother again. Sometimes he ended up at the state reform school. He flaunted his badness. It became his identity in the family and his reputation locally. We all figured out how to cope with our connection to him–an obvious one for my immediate family because we shared a last name.
I have puzzled over my cousin’s life and tried to guess at its motives and emotions. Getting to know the humanity of the female inmates I teach in my writing class at Shakopee prison has only complicated the puzzle. I see them striving to restore their better selves and to repair their damaged relationships. My cousin could be a doting grandfather, yet he continued to prey on others. The closest I’ve ever come to “understanding” him was finding a model for him in the outlaw Grettir, the anti-hero of the old Icelandic saga, Grettir’s Saga. Grettir was the archetypal utlagi, an outlaw, forced to live in exile, in isolation outside the bounds of society, because of his unrepentant, destructive acts. Yet the portrayal of Grettir shows some human nuances that save him from being a total monster, a stereotype.
When people in my circle die, I find myself only occasionally inhabited by their presence, but more often accompanied by a consciousness of spirit. This has happened even with my outlaw cousin. The other morning, while walking my dog through the commercial area of my neighborhood, I passed a Cintas truck parked in front of the hardware store. The driver was gone, but he had left a side panel door wide open. Inside was a large supply of floor mats, rolled and stacked–the absorbent, rubber-bottomed mats used inside store entrances in the winter time. What would stop me from reaching in and helping myself? I thought. I felt a quick impulse to grab one, and even a warm desire to see one inside my front door, where it could soak up snow and thaw from boots and paws and collect the kernels of sand and road salt that get tracked across my wood floors. Yes, I thought, I would make good use of it. I would like it.
I resisted the impulse and kept walking, but I continued to play out the theft in my mind. Would it be awkward to carry that roll under my arm? How heavy might it be? Would anyone who saw me think it odd and intervene? I had even noted that the truck was parked facing the other direction, so when the driver got in and took off, he wouldn’t pass me and my dog hurrying along the sidewalk with the stolen booty.
Such impulses and imaginings are not a normal part of my day, but I suspect they governed my cousin’s every moment. I began to think that his spirit had nudged me into feeling some empathy with him rather than holding him in constant judgment. What would it be like to feel the impulse so strongly you couldn’t resist it? Did he rationalize his actions or just grab and run? Did he feel remorse later or just laugh in that taunting way that I remember from childhood?
How far under the surface does this impulse lie in the rest of us? Think of all it takes–training, self-restraint, communal mores and taboos, compassion for and from others–to keep it from conquering our good intentions.