I know most people celebrate their loved ones who died in military service today, and I do truly appreciate all those who served. However, I am lucky enough not to have any family members who died in the military. Both of my grandfathers and my father were all drafted (World War II x 2 and the Vietnam War, respectively), but they all came back safely. Which is good, because otherwise, what would you be reading right now? Someone ELSE’S blog. Because I would not EXIST. DUN DUN DUNNNNN Twilight Zone! TWILIGHT ZONE!
But I do always think about my loved ones who have passed today. Well, not JUST today. I mean, it’s not like the rest of the year I’m all blithe and lighthearted and shit. Because I’m not. I’m dark and twisty a lot of the time. But on Memorial Day I tend to, more than most days, think about my dead.
See, here’s the thing, though. I don’t HAVE a lot of dead. I’m really very lucky in that respect. My people are mostly all living. Which, honestly, worries the shit out of me, because what the hell am I going to do when my people DO start dying? I don’t handle loss or change well. Really, the best way for them all to deal with this is to live forever. I hope you’re listening, loved ones. You all need to live forever. Thanks a million, because the thought of any of you not being there when I want to chat or laugh or cry or the trillion other things I rely on you for makes me itchy and teary and super-worried and kind of chest-tighteningly anxious. I know, no one is sick or anything (well, a couple of very elderly people aren’t well, but they’re old, so I’ve had time to get used to the potential of the loss, which totally makes me sound like a HEARTLESS EVIL HAG, I’m not saying I won’t be SAD, but I’ve been preemptively sad for a while now, so it’s not as sad as out-of-nowhere death. Does that make sense, or am I a sociopath?)
But today, I wanted to talk about my grandfather. I don’t talk about him much. No one in my family does. You can ask and ask and ask, but they’ll clam up like mafia wives when you ask about him. It’s all very strange and it’s all very upsetting because I want to hear all about him. I think he and I would have been good friends. So, even though apparently it’s not allowed? I’m going to tell you all about my grandfather. Who died less than a year before I was born, so I never met him. I’m just about the worst person to tell you about him, since I never met him and no one will tell me anything about him. But I’ve gleaned a few things over the years, almost by accident. I’m like a magpie when it comes to things about my grandfather. I’m hungry for any information anyone can give me. Desperate for it. I don’t like when people refuse to tell me things. It feels like they’re keeping secrets. I might be getting some of this wrong. What I don’t know, I tend to fill in with fiction. I’ve been writing things in my head since I was young. Apparently, I was doomed to be a writer before I even knew what a writer was.
My grandfather’s name was not Jim, but that’s what everyone called him. He hated his given name. He refused to use it. (Side note: I love his given name. Most of my relatives do, too, as there are a ton of their children with that name as their middle names. He would have HATED that. He hated it so much that if anyone called him that name, he would correct them. He refused to acknowledge it.) He had bright blue eyes that very few people in my family inherited and was left-handed, which they attempted to beat out of him in school, but the minute he left school, he went right back to being a southpaw with a big old screw-you to that school. He was very obstinate, my grandfather. I didn’t come by this out of nowhere. I’m from generations of obstinate humans.
I don’t know anything about his parents, other than everyone on my dad’s side of the family, both his mom and dad’s side, are descended from French-Canadians. So, apparently at one point we lived in Canada, and moved on down to New York at one point. He lived in Chateaugay, which is about twenty minutes from where I grew up. It’s a very small town. I can only assume the name “Chateaugay” means “Gay House.” I’d live in a gay house. We’d have a fabulous time. He had quite a few brothers. I don’t remember if I knew any of them. I think they died when I was quite young. And I think he had sisters, but again, I think they died quite young. The life expectancy in that branch of the family wasn’t good. At all good, actually.
At some point he was drafted into the military but I know nothing about it because no one will talk about it. I only found out about it this past December when I noticed there was one of those veteran things on his grave, and I asked my mom about it. “Sure,” she said. “He was drafted at one point. We don’t talk about it.” And we don’t. I asked Dad – nope. Change of subject.
He must have come home. He met my grandmother fairly young. He married her. They had four kids in rapid succession, as people did, back in the day. Three boys, one girl. Dad is the oldest. They lived with his parents for a while, until they got a little home of their own about 40 minutes away from them, in the town where my father and his brothers and sister grew up. My dad’s youngest brother still lives in that house.
He worked a lot of jobs. I don’t even know half of them, and I feel like maybe I’ve made some of them up in my head. I think maybe he did something with cars. I thought there was something about mining? This is the one I feel like I’m imagining. I don’t even know that there was mining upstate. Finally, he settled into a steady job as a school busdriver. Dad told me once he was very good at this. “No one dared misbehave on your grandfather’s bus,” he told me. “He was a lot of fun, but not if you screwed around.”
That’s it. That’s the whole biography of my grandfather. The factual stuff, anyway. Boring, right? See how no one tells me anything?
I’ve gotten a little more, over the years.
He was funny. Everyone I talk to, everyone who’ll talk, even if they only say one thing, says that. How funny he was. Without even trying. Not all cracking-stupid-jokes funny. Not slapstick-funny. He never had to try. He had that funny, dry, sarcastic humor. Darkly wry humor. Dad said his jokes were sometimes so dry you didn’t catch them right away. Then it would hit you a couple of hours later what he’d meant, and you’d just laugh yourself sick. My uncle, my dad’s youngest brother, apparently is very much like my grandfather. And he makes me laugh. Oh, does he make me laugh. More than almost anyone.
He was fiercely loyal. His family came first. If you crossed him or crossed his family you were dead to him. He didn’t forgive easily, or at all, once he’d written you off. But if he loved you, he loved you for keeps. You were his people. He kept you close and he kept you safe under his wing. Dad says when he watches old John Wayne movies, John Wayne reminds him of his father. His quiet cool. His calm bravado. The way he takes care of business. The way the right thing isn’t always the easy thing, but you choose the right thing, because that’s what you do, because that’s the measure of a man. I watch old John Wayne movies for a hint of my genealogy, because it’s being kept secret from me. I watch a man I’m not related to to get clues about one who makes up a quarter of my DNA.
He used to watch television and yell at it like it could hear him. He will be pleased that both his oldest son and I have continued that tradition with much gusto.
He was honest. Dad is just as honest. He learned it from his father and passed it down to me and my brother. (Yeah, it mostly stuck.) You take what you earn in this life and you don’t ever, ever steal. I remember asking my father about this once, and he said, “My dad told me you didn’t. So you don’t. That’s it.” That’s it. That’s the kind of command he had. He said you didn’t, so you didn’t.
He was very, very old-school Catholic. And very Republican. Dad said he would have argued with me until we were both blue in the face. “He’d still have loved me, though?” I asked. Dad laughed. “Oh, yes. I think he would have loved you more than you can even imagine, Amy.”
One of the only stories I know about him was that when he first met my mom, he was very quiet. Didn’t say much. And then he looked her up and down (she was very thin at the time, and young – when my parents met, my mom was only 19) and finally said, “Huh. Nice to meet you, Olive Oyl.” After that, he always called her Olive Oyl. It became their thing. I asked her why, since she wasn’t especially tall or anything, and she said, “Oh, that was just Jim. If he gave you a nickname, you knew you were in.”
Were there bad things about him? I’m sure there were. Those type of stories don’t often get passed down, especially about beloved family members. He had a quick temper. He was a flirt. He could be mean, sometimes, in the way intelligent people can to those who are less well-endowed intellectually. But minor things. Nothing egregious. People remember him and smile, even non-family members. He left a good name. He left good memories behind, when they’re allowed out to play.
And that’s it. That’s all I know, from when he was alive. Except the last day of his life. I’ve heard the story of that. I’ve heard it more than once. I asked to hear it. I’ve examined it from a lot of angles. I’ve studied it. I think if I study it enough, I can figure out how to fix it, because the day my grandfather died, my dad’s side of the family broke, and I think if he hadn’t, they’d still be ok. They’d still be whole.
The day started normally. He drove the students to school on his bus. His own kids were adults, some with families of their own. He had four grandchildren and a fifth on the way. He lived alone with his wife for the first time in a very long time. He loved his wife. He loved his children. He loved his grandchildren. He was in his late forties. (I told you they started their family young and had those kids one after the other.) It was December, a couple of weeks before Christmas. His wife had hidden presents for him in the attic. He knew they were there. He was looking forward to seeing the family all in one place for the holiday. It was cold. No one remembers if it was snowing.
Every day, he’d drive past my grandmother’s office where she worked and honk and wave. It was a small town. Those things could happen. That day, she was in a meeting with her boss. She missed the honk and the wave. She remembers missing it. She never missed it. She was sorry she had. She reminded herself to call him later to see how his day was going.
He went home. His middle son was there when he got home. They chatted in the driveway. No one remembers what they chatted about.
He then had a massive heart attack, to all reports with no warning, no tightness of the chest, no pain, no feeling just a little bit off, and, as his middle son watched in horror, he crumpled to the ground. He died almost instantly, no matter what my poor, lost uncle, who was only 23 at the time, did. There wasn’t even time for the ambulance to do any good.
Bad hearts run in our family. Even when we don’t do anything to warrant them. I blame it on us always wearing them on our sleeves, and then I laugh about it, but it’s not really funny, and there’s really no explanation other than genetics. People in my father’s family have hearts that fail and stop and die. We tend to carry little heart-shaped time bombs in our chests that go off without warning.
My family still hasn’t stopped grieving. It’s been almost forty years and they still cry when they talk about him. It’s why they won’t tell me any stories. It still hurts too much, almost a lifetime later. They still cry. They can’t. They can’t remember. It causes too much pain. My grandmother never remarried, or even dated again, and she lived for another twenty-five years. She was done. She’d had the love of her life. No more. When she died? And they were cleaning out her attic? They found his Christmas presents, still wrapped, still in her attic. She couldn’t throw them away. They were waiting to be put under a Christmas tree that had never happened, twenty-five years prior to that.
My mom was either barely pregnant with me when he died or got pregnant with me right afterward, but, either way, they never got to tell him. He never knew his beloved oldest son was going to be a dad. “He would have liked you,” Dad told me once. “You two would have gotten each other. He would have liked knowing you. You’d have made him proud.”
I would have liked knowing him, too. I would have liked knowing that he was on my side. I would have liked knowing he had my back. I like fiercely loyal and darkly funny. I like them so much I’ve co-opted them for myself.
Once, my father was going through a box of old things, and found a reel-to-reel tape recorder and some tapes. I was excited. I love old things. I asked what they were, and he just shook his head. Repeated questioning from me finally uncovered that they were recordings his father had sent him while he was overseas during Vietnam – letters, but recorded, so the Skyping of the 70s, I suppose. I wanted to listen to them. I wanted to listen to them so badly. I wanted to hear my grandfather’s voice. What a gift, the gift of his voice! But my father refused. “These won’t be listened to again until I’m dead,” he said. And he meant it. I’ve asked again over the years – and there have been many years, it’s been probably thirty years since I found them – and the answer is always the same. No. No, Amy, you can’t listen to them. They’ve taken on iconic status in my mind. I feel like they would solve all of life’s mysteries, were I only allowed to listen and hear my grandfather’s voice from a time before I was even dreamed of, before my parents had met. Someday I’ll get to hear them. I’d like to listen to them with my father, though. So he can explain the things I don’t understand, the inside jokes; so he can fill in the blanks that exist because the tapes are coming from a time of which I have no prior knowledge.
Every once and a while, someone who knew my grandfather will say, “You’re funny. You remind me of your grandfather.” And I’ll just beam. Because, what a compliment, you know? What a compliment. Maybe someday, once I’m gone, people will remember me and think about how funny, how loyal, or different things, things that are just mine. But I hope they talk about me. I hope they don’t keep it inside. I want to be talked about. I don’t want to be kept secret. I want to be shouted from the rooftops, even if doing so makes them cry.
Happy Memorial Day, Grandpa Jim. I wish you were here. I’d like to talk to you. I’d like to see if I could make you laugh. I’d make it my mission. I feel like I could do it. Your kids have trained me well. I’ve got this thing down.
Happy Memorial Day, everyone. Remember your people. But not sadly. Tell stories. All the stories. Don’t keep them in. Tell them until your whole chest aches with them. Let your people live forever through you. It’s the best way you can memorialize them. It’s the best way you can remember. Do it all year long, but especially today. It’s not mourning. It’s celebration.
(Title’s from W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues, which was a good poem- still is! – before that horrible Four Weddings and a Funeral put its grubby paws all over it, dammit.)