Sunday, January 27, 2013

Heritage

If by some miracle I fathered a child then that child would never know his great-grandparents. He wouldn't know Abraham Lincoln either so that might not come as a big surprise. But my point is that he would not know people who were instrumental in his own existence and formative to my own.

I drove both of my grandfather's cars. They preferred larger 8 cylinder cruisers with power windows and blue or brown interiors. Neither of them owned as much as a socket set. Their cars smelled like baby powder and aftershave. Their words as we cruised down the street were casual references to my beard, job prospects and girlfriends.


My mother's father, Sam, rubbed his knee replacement while he drove with a hand covered by white hair on the knuckles, his blue polyester slacks binding at the thigh. He wore patent leather loafers and white socks and button up short sleeve shirts with a white tank top underneath. He wore silver dollar bolo ties and didn't think that was unusual. He had a way of working the steering wheel like it was a ship's anchor line that needed turning. That was a sturdy steering wheel, by the way, strong, indestructible. It's probably still out there somewhere!
"Well, Oggy, you won't get rich doin' nothin'. Clothes a mess...face all a hairy. Boy-o-boy!"
His tone, a toothy New England farm folk slang, said it all, that I was hardly worth lecturing with my girl hair length and fake frame glasses and flowery tank top shirt with nothing to cover it.
"Good looking boy like you hiding behind all that hair? Look, there's a barber. How about it? I'll pay!"
Never mind that this grandfather had lost his hair by the time he was thirty so the option of growing a mane like mine was never one to choose. I would nod because when he framed the topic thusly I really had no rebuttal. He had enjoyed taking photographs and one picture he took of our house in Maine will forever represent an idea and image I have of my early childhood. I could have argued that like his interest in photography had born fruit, I too had amateur designs on a life as a writer and my first assignment to myself was to read. But raising the lofty example of Hermann Hesse or Jack Kerouac would have been futile so I was content to listen to the talk radio station and watch the college students merrily march their books to class. Our big blue Oldsmobile thundered down the street under my grandfather's sure hand. I'd say he was 83 at the time and we were on our way to visit his wife in the long-term care facility. He made me banana pancakes for lunch with maple syrup and butter and considered it the height of acceptable gluttony. His wife liked playing scrabble and getting postcards from her daughters. She didn't drive at all from what I could remember.

The last time I drove with my father's father, Bob, the source of my middle name, it was down a tree lined corridor in the college town of his adult life. I was certain we would crash because he was genuinely oblivious to other drivers, pedestrians, obstacles, stop signs, lights, cats, everything. He squinted through his glasses and muttered with grumpy dissuasion. He'd had a stroke some years earlier and a man of few words became a man of no words. He was probably 92 years old and we were going to fill a prescription at the drug store.
"Stop sign!" I blurted as we glided through a four way stop.
He muttered while I gripped the door handle.
His wife had been the talker of the family...her elocution and mannerisms borrowed from Katherine Hepburn. Bob was the keeper of the cigarettes, the guy bringing in more wood to the fireplace.
"School?" He asked tentatively as he had long abandoned my fate to the Gods.
My college career had been disillusioning so I'd decided to take some time for independent study. I summed this up by saying, "One day. But lately I'm reading.

I emphasized this last word like he was hard of hearing, but he wasn't. His lack of voice command made me think he couldn't understand words either.
"Bullshit!" he said and muttered something to the effect that this was blowing smoke up his ass and that I was malingering. I tossed my hands up futilely, surrendering. I had to save my strength up for real arguments with my father about the nature of violence and the effect hunger strikes have on world affairs.
My two sets of grandparents lived in the same small town for most of their lives, a detail that isn't common and is becoming less common as biology and chemistry become less reliant on sociology.

If my son were born I would tell him his grandparents live in Australia and Holland and I'd need a map of the entire planet to show him where those places are. My grandparents, on the other hand, lived in the same zip code and probably shopped at the same grocery store and had their paper delivered by the same paper boy. I could find both their houses on a single town map. More importantly, I'm thinking of the lack of emotional connection my child would have with his predeceased great-grandparents. Most of us don't know who our great-grandparents are so we can all relate. We come into the world and can only hear the echoes of their voices in the behavior patterns of our grandparents, whom we hardly give a second thought to until they die or are stricken or send us large Christmas checks, and in the barely contained battle our parents wage for control. It's already laid out, our genetic infrastructure, and the architects are dead. We drive through town oblivious to the stop signs and intersections they previously paved, plowing through the fields they planted and parking on their flower beds.

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.