Sunday, September 30, 2012
That whole "youth is wasted on the young" adage is true for more than just the reason it is generally used. Most people have grandparents for at least a while and when you do you're probably young and when you ask your simple questions you get answers--or maybe you don't ask any at all, but you're too unobservant to notice. Because you're stupid about the brevity of life you fail to realize that these people who keep the Dr. Peppers extra cold in a special garage refrigerator just for you are the keepers of your DNA in story form. And their visas for life on the planet have a limit. It's not that youth should be used for only one thing but that the patience and foresight you need about the swiftly passing years don't come until later.
Still-- you do hear about the twin sisters with rhyming names that your maternal grandfather tells you about, but only because you ask him while he's having his coffee in that maroon melamine cup he always drank it from. He probably wouldn't have told you otherwise because he's a quiet man. They were jumping from the hayloft and later one of the twin girls died and they carried her casket in the wagon past her old schoolyard one last time and played her favorite hymn which your grandfather could still sing. And he does in a low soft voice that raises the chill bumps on your arms almost as much as the unlooked for news that children die sometimes. What the hell?
There's the story your grandmother tells about a tornado that blew away her childhood home while they were hiding in the storm cellar and maybe a fire where someone risks his neck in order to duck back inside the burning structure to rescue the newly purchased suit of clothes.
Your other grandfather with the spooky laugh and kind eyes teaches you words from his native Germany, but you scarcely get to know him before he dies of a heart problem which leaves you with the grandmother who taught you to knit and play cards but who shows disapproval more easily than affection. And who never wants to talk about where she came from.
One day it's as if every tale they've ever told you gets an instant replay in your head until you remember a detail or two that doesn't quite make sense and when you start to question it all because now you're actually interested and you have the time? The people you need to ask are out of time. Everyone's gone. You could have spent at least a few more hours with your mom's mother, but her last years of bad health coincided with the beginning of your teenage dating career and you couldn't possibly have known how important those old people were going to be until they weren't there anymore. Those who would have told you the most--had you bothered to ask-- exited the planet first-- leaving you with the grandmother with all the secrets and half truths. Ironically, strokes later relieved her of the need to continue whitewashing the exposed parts of her sad early life that couldn't be hidden--the part that took place before you even got here.
There was that new start in America after leaving either Poland or Russia...no one's really certain because the story changed depending upon who was telling it. Her father who drank. Her mother who lost one baby after falling down the cellar stairs. The mysterious sister whose children were taken from her and whose ultimate end no one wants to talk about...even fifty years after her death. The great-uncle you never knew about who died when he was two. The institutionalized nephew. Her handsome baby brother, killed in a jeep accident in Puerto Rico. Her marriage to a man --my grandfather--which was never all that happy. The fact that a month before she gave birth to my father, her own father shot and killed his wife--her mother-- in their home on Olive Street before turning the gun on himself. And the years of family members self-medicating with alcohol which make me more than convinced that if there was ever a family crest to discover, it would probably feature a bottle of gin and a bowl of peanuts. If these are the details we do know, imagine what there must be that she and her other siblings were keeping to themselves?
I remember my youngest sister's foray into geneology, which my other sister and I later followed. One afternoon she called me and said, "Well...the good news is we've got some really artistic people on Dad's side of the family. Painters and people who write or create. The bad news? Lots of c-r-a-z-y and alcoholics everywhere." Awesome.
The grandmother who loved risque' jokes, and long neighborhood walks where she picked up spare change off the street, talk show host Jack Paar and later--inexplicably-- a nurtured fixation for an actress named Della Reese; the grandmother who loved hearing your true stories but who was less anxious to tell you anything even remotely unvarnished, left behind a lot of objects which were physical talismans of the time I spent in her house. A commemorative John F. Kennedy spoon. Her telephone table. The best platform rocking chair ever made. Some mixing bowls. Her method for salting homemade french fries. Those are--every one of them-- treasures and they remind me of her every time I see or think about them.
However, I'd trade all of it for a copy of her missing salad dressing recipe and the truth about everything else-- no matter how shameful she probably thought it was. It's all just story and one of the last things we learn in life is that the best ones are those that no one wants to tell.