Saturday, August 19, 2006

The two I never knew....

My friend Talmadge Gleck has written a very loving tribute to his grandfather on his Five Flavors of Reflection. And it got me to thinking about my own relationships with my grandfathers. I wish I could say that I had the best grandfathers in the world and that they loved me tremendously and doted on my every move and every word. But that would be completely false. In fact, I never knew either of them -- but even today, they continue to impact my life.

My maternal grandfather died of a heart attack at age 48 in 1962. He had been through quite a bit even in that young life. When he was around 26 years old, he was stricken with polio and more or less paralyzed from the thorax down. A few years later, with the help of Vocational Rehabilitation, he opened a little mom-n-pop grocery (convenience store) right in our front yard. Then he died, when my mom was 24.

How has he loomed in my life? Apparently, he's on a slightly lower pedestal than the Trinity. There is no doubt whatever that my mother adored and worshipped her daddy. I ask my relatives about him, and they always say, "Oh, Uncle Gene was the most fun-loving guy you could imagine." To which I think, "Then please explain how my mother is one of the least fun-loving people in the world...." From what I gather, he had a can-do spirit and was a prankster extraordinaire. I also gather he was a bit authoritarian, but probably no more so than other dads of that place and time. I don't know enough of his relatives who would remember him -- or who are still around to tell the story.

Then there is my paternal grandfather, the great mystery. He fathered seven children with my grandmother, and they were married for around 38 years. He lived with her for probably less than 15 of them. I can't say that I completely blame him either. I loved my grandmother, but she could drive any saint to drink or worse.

My dad doesn't talk about his dad; he just says, "Not much to tell." By the time my father was growing up, my grandfather had moved back to his homeplace and more or less came over for occasional visits. My grandparents never divorced, the only possible explanation being that divorce wasn't viewed kindly in their families. I have heard snippets of stories about him from others in the family, and quite honestly, he doesn't seem like a bad guy. I'm honestly a little afraid to ask much more from my uncles and aunts. They're not a talkative lot -- except for one aunt, who will gladly talk as long as there is an audience (okay, so I get it honestly...).

Anyway, my grandfather died at age 63 when I was just over 5 months old, of complications from a stroke several years earlier. Of course, had it not been for the stroke, I would not be here. My parents began corresponding when my mother read an article in the newspaper about my father's situation (in the Army, being sent home as the lone remaining unmarried son to help support the family), and their story began. I am told that at his last and my first Christmas, he was at the old homeplace. When my mother walked in holding me (2 months old that day), he began to gesture for her and my dad. He finally uttered the word, "Baby!" and held me very briefly with tears in his eyes.

How does he impact me? As I said, he is the great mystery, from a family of mystery. I have cousins from that family in the area, but they have always tended to stay away from us and from my dad's siblings. Not sure why. Of course, maybe they knew Granny and assume that since my dad and siblings were raised by her, they have more of her in them than of my grandad. That just makes me want to know him all the more. He impacts me because when I do hear the rare stories of him and my grandmother together, they're always sad and make me really see her as the bad guy of the two.

A lot of people think my dad looks just like my granddad. I have one picture of him somewhere -- a rare one of him on a visit back to the homeplace, and he and my grandmother are standing next to each other. Naturally, she also looks like she's eaten 14 fresh lemons and a couple of rotten persimmons. He's smiling beatifically. Gotta admit, it says a lot. Anyway, I don't see that much of the resemblance, but then again, I never knew what he looked like outside the picture.

Here is the summation of my relationship with my grandfathers:
The saddest words of tongue or pen
Are these four words: what might have been.
--John Greenleaf Whittier

1 comment:

Talmadge G. said...

"What might have been" ..... perhaps the four most achingly haunting words ever uttered.

Your Dad says about his father, "Not much to tell." Believe me, you know far more about him than I do about much of my family. What I do know is only due to having known them while alive, and for a paternal grandmother who loved to answer any question I may have had about my grandfather, who died when I was 5.

My parents aren't much to talk about family stuff ... my mother comes from a family where, if there's a crest, would contain the Latin words Nihil Mali, Vide, Audi, Dic
(See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil) .... reference the big coverup on Big John's depression and early '60s breakdown.

And Dad just isn't one to talk about those things. His parents are gone, his brother long gone .... he's content with living in the present.

When I transferred all of Big John's super-8 home movies to VHS in the mid '90s, I asked my grandmother to watch them and make notes -- some (long-deceased) relatives I could not identify, and I wanted to have them annotated for my son and future generations.

She didn't. There was "never any time."

Several years later, I gave a blank cassette to "the other grandmother" and asked her to start recording, and start talking. Any anecdote about family. Anything goes.

She didn't. There was "never any time." Matter of fact, after her death, that tape recorder ended up in my possession. I opened it, and - you guessed it - that same tape was still in the machine, counter set to "000."

My brother couldn't care less about family history, either.

What this all means, of course, is my son Tiger is gonna have little to say about his ancestors, except for what I tell him. Meanwhile, people on his mother's side have engaged in throrough geneology ...

I don't begrudge my ex's family doing that. Would that my family had the same priority.

That was a beautiful story ... and a credit to those who came before you.