Monday, July 25, 2016

A Personal Story

This post is more personal than usual.  Quite personal.  It’s a story of my grandfather, though it’s important to specifically point out that it’s a story—not, of course, the story.  It’s my story.  I’m sure there are many others.  I tell it here because, from my grandfather, I learned that leading with anger or fear just doesn’t work. 

My grandfather was a hard and angry man.  There were plenty of reasons for him to be angry; he’d seen a whole lot of awful.  War, for one thing—an ugly, senseless, stupid, terrible war that stole most of his friends.  And then, years later, there was another ugly, senseless, stupid, terrible (and, this time, unwinnable) war that stole the sons of his friends and ruined his relationship with his son—my father—who unapologetically chose to stand by his anti-war beliefs instead of adopt the blind, sheep-like patriotism of my grandfather.  Which was the greatest sin of all, to my grandfather; he simply couldn’t accept it.  Decades passed without the two of them speaking. 

War.  Such a reason to be angry.  And, with public opinion shifted, there in the early 1970s, my grandfather had to spend his life stoically defending why that war had happened, and why people so many people had died.

It must have exhausted him.  It certainly infuriated him.

But there were other reasons he was so angry.  He got sick, right when he should have been at his prime of life as a man.  The mumps.  The illness apparently took a lot of things from him that no man would want to lose.  And then his wife—my grandmother—retreated, dreamily, into her own world of Catholicism and passive-aggressiveness.  So there was that.  And there was this:  My grandfather worked for the FBI, so it was his job to go out and find bad guys.  He was always on the lookout.  For bad guys, sure, but also for all the other scary and unpredictable things he thought may be hiding out there in the world.  I remember him being jumpy.  His jowls sunk with his perpetual scowl.

He was kind to me, as much as he could be.  Our conversations were stumbling, difficult ones, but we both tried.  I only saw him once a year as a child and teenager; my mother would insist we visit them, just she and us kids, each summer.  We’d stop at their house en route to her parent’s house in suburban Washington, D.C.  We would spend an afternoon with them, which consisted of an awkward lunch and some time sitting around sharing stilted conversation. 

In college, I saw them a bit more.  At the time, my sister was living in Georgetown in a darling basement apartment on T Street.  I was pretty unhappy at college, so whenever she’d have me—every month or so—I’d flee the loneliness of my rural northwestern Pennsylvania campus and drive the five hours to spend the weekend with her.  I’d sleep on her couch and poach off of her fun, exciting city life.  On Saturday mornings, we’d run long miles along the Potomac River to muster enough mutual granddaughterly guilt; after a shower and a bagel at the corner bakery, we’d climb into my little blue Reliant and drive along Route 50 to our grandparent’s home in Fairfax for lunch.  We would knock, almost apologetically.  My grandfather would have been waiting for us with his eye on the clock.  Promptness was one of his (many) expectations.  He would open the door and peer down at us over the thick rims of his glasses.  Formal as a knight, he would lead us out to the screened-in porch and point to where we were to sit; we’d dutifully sink into the scratchy plastic seats, waiting, while my grandmother flitted around serving bowls of hamburger soup and plastic cups of lukewarm lemonade.  We’d stutter through clumsy conversation that felt more like an interview than a loving exchange between family.  I shifted in my seat until it was, blessedly, time to go.  And then:  bungled hugs and promises about “next time.”  My grandmother would sneak a clean one-dollar bill and a packet of cheese crackers into each of our palms. 

As we headed back to the city, my sister would lean her head back against the pilled headrest.  We’d both sigh, exhausted.  I always felt rejected, somehow, as if I’d done something wrong.  But I had no idea what it might be.

Looking back, of course I felt that way.  Here’s the thing:  Every time we visited, there was the inevitable back-and-forth in which my grandfather sought to determine what, exactly, I had planned for myself.  He wanted a plan, by God.  A plan that would yield results.  Plans were right up there with promptness, in terms of important virtues.

But I was 20.  I didn’t have a plan.

My sister would talk about her job at Georgetown University and her progress on finishing her graduate degree.  And then:  “And, Jennifer--?  What are you doing now?  And what is next?”

And I didn’t know what to say. 
The truth?

I am miserable at college.
I am majoring in English because it’s the only thing I understand.
I want to be a writer, but anything I write seems unreadable to others.
I’ve been rejected from the two graduate schools I hoped would take me and make me a writer.
I’m broke.
This hamburger soup repulses me.
I’m crashing on my sister’s couch whenever she’ll let me, because she will let me, and I don’t know where else to go, but I have to go somewhere.
My boyfriend smokes marijuana all the time; I’m not sure he’s aware of me.
I am the best waitress I know.  I’m considering making a living at it. 
I know you don’t like me, and I’m trying to remind myself that you don’t like anyone, so it’s not personal. 
But I need people to like me right now. 

He didn’t want to hear those things.   Of course he didn’t.  So I didn’t say them. 

Here’s the thing:  I was terrified of my grandfather, the whole time I knew him.  Most everyone was.  There was just this feeling—that everything inside him might bubble up at any time and detonate, leaving carnage all around.  And he had a distinct lift of his brows, always disappointed, always disapproving.  Always angry. 

Time moved on.  My sister left D.C., so I didn’t see my grandparents much.  They grew older.  And tired.  They decided that living in Fairfax was too hard, anymore; it had evolved from a peaceful suburb to a crowded, powerful annex of D.C.  Everywhere they looked there was traffic, noise, and piles and piles of people.  Even going to the Safeway for milk had become overwhelming.  They moved south to Yorktown, where they would be near my aunts and their grandchildren.  They bought a small brick ranch house on a quiet street—a house creepily like their Fairfax home of 40 years.  And there they lived.  The barely spoke to one another; when they did, it was my grandfather snapping, angrily, and my grandmother trying, as she always tried, not to be hurt.  She prayed hard at mass every morning.  My grandfather brooded and puttered.   I saw them every year or so when visiting my aunts.  Each year, I was struck by their old-ness and by the fact that I still—still!—I couldn’t think of much to say when I sat at their lunch table.   And that I was still frightened of my grandfather, in spite of his bent back and slow, pained movements and his inability to hear a thing I said.

The end was ugly.  When my grandmother got really sick, my aunt told me how it would end, for him, but I told her she was wrong.  “He wouldn’t do that,” I scoffed.  She raised an eyebrow.  “Watch,” she said.  Days later, my grandmother died peacefully (thereby ruining my long-held wish that she’d outlive him and get to spend all his money—as much as she wanted, carelessly, until it was all gone).  He cried at her funeral, but only for a moment.  I saw him; I watched.  After the service, he drove himself home alone.  “I don’t want company,” he said when several of us offered to ride with him.  “Meet at the house.  We’ll order sandwiches.  Everyone.”  We all followed, dutifully:  His children, his grandchildren, all of us doing exactly as we were told.  

Nine days later, before the sun came up, he drove the mile or so to the most patriotic place he could think of—the field where the Battle of Yorktown had been bitterly fought two and a half centuries earlier.  It was now a peaceful, lovely ground, but the ghosts of long-dead soldiers still seem to lurk in the folds between the massive trees.  He parked his Camry and sunk a bullet into his gut.  He did it pridefully, and angrily, and defiantly, which is how he did everything.  He died on his own terms. 

For awhile, I worked to admire what he’d done, trying out words like “courage” and “owning fate,” but it was hard to do; there’s really no way to make peace with thinking about someone we love—someone whose blood runs in our own veins—intentionally and mindfully point a gun at himself and pulling the trigger. 

This story isn’t a fair one, I’m sure.  My father would tell it differently, certainly, as would my aunts and my grandmother and even my sister, but there it is:  this is how I remember it to be.  I think about it when I think about ruling with fear and living with anger.  I think about it when I remember being uncomfortable even sitting in the living room of a man I was supposed to love.  I think about it when I remember my grandfather’s inquiries about my life’s plan, and the irony of it all—that, just about the time I would have been proud and confident enough to answer his questions, just about the time I wasn’t scared of him any longer, he had stopped listening. 


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