Sunday, February 26, 2012

Grandfathered In

(from a collection of shots of odd/aged "handicap" signs I've taken over the years)
In writing an essay for an upcoming call from Creative Non-Fiction journal, I have been going through my grandfather's writings on his trips to Australia. I have these because I have nearly all of our family files - all the letters, all the paperwork. No bills, I hope, still up there, but at least three generations' worth of photos and other family ephemera. My grandfather - he was the only one I ever met, as the other one died before I was born - visited Australia annually over the course of a few years, for about a month at a time, with often side trips to Fiji or Tahiti or New Zealand. I always wanted to go with him, but never did. In writing this essay, I am addressing a question I never really asked myself. Why?
My grandfather, aka Bapa, was the last "elder" in our family to die. I lived with him on and off in his final years, and it wasn't easy. Always a bit of a critical fellow, he got crankier and quite depressed. He'd seen his wife, daughter, son-in-law and numerous friends go. By the time he died he was 89, and had, for over a year, been saying that he didn't understand why he was still alive. He did get to know that  his two grandsons had been born, and meet one of them. And he did get to see his eldest grandson get married. He certainly valued those moments.

But he was tired. Aged. Nearly blind. Not able to get around much. Hot weather was too hot and cold too cold. When I went back to see him at one point, before I decided to move back for the summer and care for him, his doctor told my brothers and me that he'd put Bapa on Nicoderm patches. Only when he saw Bapa next, he realized that Bapa kept smoking AND using the patch. Oops. The doc decided it was pointless to try and get him to quit - likely smoking was holding his lungs together.

That, my friends, was my grandfather. Stubborn. Solo (his wife died almost twenty years before him). A re-confirmed bachelor. A world traveler.

Also generous. He sent us postcards and gifts from all over his travels. He took care of my family after our father died and my mother couldn't work. He undercharged rent from his tenants. He fed pigeons and squirrels faithfully in his back yard. He donated to countless charities.

As soon as I began to read over his writings, a few things struck me consciously, and a few struck me UNconsciously. The conscious: that he taught me how to love nature. That he loved language so much and clearly that's a lot of where I got my love of language from. That he had a dorky, but wicked, sense of humor, mostly based in word-play.

The unconscious, meaning, it's taken two weeks of working on this essay to unpack these effects:
he was harsh and critical of myself and my mother and brothers. He held control over my father and family with finances. After my father died, and I lost him as a guide to tell me if I was ok as a person, I turned to my grandfather for that kind of reference. And the feedback wasn't very good.

Today, lost in the common state of confusion over how much work to do and how much to relax, Dylan asked me a few pointed questions that took me inside the voice - My Critic - that appears to tell me that if I don't get a lot of work done, I am worthless. I have always assumed the bulk of this voice came from my father (see here and here), as he was a workaholic. But he died when I was twelve. And a lot of the power of that voice feels - later. More influential than that. Multi-faceted. As soon as I said out loud:
"The only way to get noticed with either my dad or grandfather was to be working, doing something"
a little place in my heart clicked. Ah. Aha. It wasn't just my dad, not just Puritanical Midwest work ethic. Bapa had his hand in that, too.

I'm not beyond anger about this - new discoveries can help release old fighting patterns - but I am beyond blame. The man had a complicated life. He's not solely responsible for my inner critic, only part of the chorus. But it really helps to decipher another part of the puzzle. Helps pull the power out of the punch.

And so far as the essay about Australia for Creative Non-Fiction? Let's hope they want it super creative, because my resulting essay is only half about this country I have never in fact visited - Oz - and equally half about my relationship with Bapa that, until now, has gone barely explored. Wild and deserty, dry and uninhabited - just like the Outback. Not for long.

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