I don’t know that much about my grandfather on my mother’s side. We never had those casual familial ties to him like most families have with each other– he didn’t show up to Christmas celebrations (well, he was Jewish); he didn’t show up to our birthdays with airbrushed sheet cakes in hand. There were no phone calls or visits to check in on how tall we’d gotten or what grade we were in or what kinds of subjects we liked in school.
He lived eight hours away, holed up in a tiny house on the top of a hill in the silvery-snowed-in-back-woods of Upper Peninsula Michigan. We did see him a few times during my childhood although those visits trickled to nothing by the time I reached high school.
After one Christmas, I must have just turned eight, we hauled out to his little house on the hill with cleaning supplies and garbage bags in tow.
“He can’t see dirt anymore.” Said my mother, preparing us for entrance. We were going to clean his house if it killed her goddamit, and it felt like a near intervention.
It was the only time I would ever go there.
And while the rest of the family cleaned, I roamed aimlessly outside the house in the cold – surrounded by nothing but vast, icy wilderness and not another soul for miles around me. While putzing around I stumbled on an old shed that inexplicably contained dozens and dozens of discarded yarmulkes tossed amongst garbage and firewood and broken bits and pieces of god only knows what (how many yarmulkes did one man need anyway?) And as I was leaving the shed, in search of better things to do, I spotted an enormous buck galloping down the horizon of his driveway a ways off into the distance. I froze, and the buck froze, and we stared at each other through the white mist of snow like two CGI creatures in a Pixar film. It didn’t feel real, and I sometimes wonder now if it had just been a dream. Maybe the whole thing had been a dream. Memories are deceiving like that.
I don’t think I saw my grandfather even once while we were there.
My grandfather existed as a mythical figure to me –a romanticized version of what I thought a family member could be, if maybe, a family member could be something to me at all. (If maybe, I could have really known him at all.) Maybe, in a family where I was an outcast, he was an outcast too. Maybe he would’ve understood.
Of course, I did know at least a tiny bit about him. I knew that in the seventies, he’d named his three dogs Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin – or at least, that was the lore. I knew that he was tall, maybe six foot four or six foot five or six foot six or seven foot a hundred.
I knew that he was in a war.
I remember an old sepia toned photograph of him on a beach. He was leaning against some machinery, wearing a uniform, and sporting a swath of thick, dark hair whooshed about his forehead. Maybe there was a cigarette dangling from his mouth, or maybe there wasn’t. Maybe there was a smirk on his face or maybe there wasn’t. Etched at the bottom of the photograph in black ink were the words, “Papua New Guinea, 1943” (or was it 42…or 44). My mother showed me that photograph. She pulled it out from a cabinet hidden at the bottom of a bookshelf and confirmed what I thought might be true, “Your grandfather was a very handsome man.”
Was. Even when he was alive we always spoke of him as if he didn’t exist anyway.
Maybe his absence, as I had always felt about myself, was a result of misfitism. He just didn’t belong with a bunch of suburban dwelling Protestants, listening to their Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura. Maybe he was a free spirit, a creative spirit, a rebel – like me, or how I liked to think of me. Maybe that’s why there were no cards or presents or parties, no appearance and reappearances at all the appropriate family venues. It was all a bit to bourgeois for people like us. (As an adult, I place no value on gifts during the holidays whatsoever. I can’t tell you the last time I bought a Christmas present.)
I suspected he was an atheist although he went through Hebrew school, as you do when your parents are Jewish-Hungarian immigrants living on the South Side of Chicago. When he was much older, and had suffered a health scare, my mother visited him at the hospital with a dutiful copy of the New Testament in hand.
“I know you’ve read the first half.” She’d reportedly told him. “Promise me you’ll read the next half too.”
(And if we are alike in any way at all, I’m sure he absolutely did not comply.)
But in my heart of hearts, I suspect he wasn’t whoever it is I’d fantasized for him to be. I doubt he would’ve been any kind of savior. He was probably just a guy, just like any other guy.
I don’t have a single memory of a single conversation I ever have had with him. I can barely remember what he looked like, aside from that old photo.
But when he published a book in the early 90s, he dedicated it to my sister and me. And although as a kid, I wanted nothing more than to feel just a little bit special to anyone anywhere, I could tell the gesture was hollow. Who were we to him that our names were in this book? Who had put him up to that shit anyway?
(In fact, while writing this right now I googled the book and found it on sale for $49.95 on Amazon. The dedication page was available in a picture format. It read as thus:
“This book is dedicated to my granddaughters [sister’s name] and Katlyn.”
And then it goes on.
“This book is dedicated to those Selectees of the Selective Service System who were drafted in the U.S. Army in World War II and went from a terrible depression into a terrible war.”
Then it goes on again.
“There is an urgent need for us to maintain for ourselves and for our posterity, the history, the tradition, and the heritage of the Falls. The pioneers who came here in the nineteenth century had the guts, fortitude, and determination to carve this [unreadable] practically with their bare hands, out of raw wilderness. It would be a disservice to them, for me not to be engaged in this enterprise, the preparing of this book, as an [unreadable] remembrance for their valiant efforts. To those pioneers this is further dedicated.”
So, yeah, the dedication to his granddaughters? Feels a touch irrelevant, no? Although, I can’t help but feel our writing styles are similar.)
That all aside, he did give me one thing, even if accidentally, that likely altered the path of my life.
On a random day in fall, when I was around twelve years old, we received a delivery to our front door of a large, battered cardboard box. It wasn’t anyone’s birthday, it wasn’t a holiday. It just came with no explanation.
My mother sliced it open with a box cutter on our kitchen table. The box was filled with used books in various stages of erosion, some falling apart in tatters, some with yellowing paper, all with cracked spines and folded over pages. But it was filled with books. It was from my grandfather.
“Your grandfather thinks reading is very important.” My mother informed me, although, I’d have personally never known if she hadn’t said it.
I dug in – most of the books were garbage, nonfiction I had no interest in or almanacs and other outdated college textbooks.
But two of the books would do. One was a super misogynistic male-fantasy novel about a middle aged white man in the 1960s who had an affair with his secretary who “smelled like lemons” while he constantly disparaged how little he wanted to fuck his wife – boohoo. I liked it because of its salaciousness and the liberal use of the word “fuck” and the semi graphic descriptions of sex, but otherwise, even I knew the writing was shit.
But the other book was life changing, a book I still own to this day, and a book that I have read and reread dozens of times. The other book was The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood.
Lots of people would argue that The Robber Bride isn’t one of Atwood’s greatest novels by a longshot, but for twelve year old me, it might as well have been the Holy Bible written by Yahweh himself (herself- ahem). I read it in one sitting on a Saturday – staying up late into the night (a thing I still do…) to finish.
It wasn’t so much about that one book, but what that one book opened up for me. Whether or not my grandfather knew it (and I don’t think he knew it), he had given me the keys to unlock part of my identity.
Atwood led to Plath which led to Morrison which led to Dickinson which led to more Atwood which led to a whole host of female writers. Not on purpose, but just because it made sense. It felt right.
And I needed that book because in high school – a challenging time for us all– books weren’t made for me. There was no Atwood et al to be found. Instead we read about poor, sorrowful, seer suckered Jay Gatsby and sweetly angsty Holden Caulfield. We read about precocious, pithy Owen Meany. We read about John Krakauer defeating a mountain and Young Men and Fire. We read about Ahab and the whale. We read about the Beatkniks being oh so incredibly cool (in retrospect…fucking gag). We read about Phineus and Gene giving it the old college try. We read about Hamlet… sad, desperate, privileged Hamlet.
What we never read about was anything that had anything to do with me. (There was a kind of implicit understanding I had about it too – the men in the stories were important. Men were important. The girl reading about them? Not so much. No one was interested in telling her story. No one was interested in listening to it either.)
And so, Atwood was my identity. She was my key to being understood, my key to validation as a human without a penis or a coming of age story to tell – and she was given to me by my grandfather, a person who I didn’t understand at all, who probably didn’t understand me.
I suppose I could’ve told him about it once I was older. I could’ve rang him up and spoken to him like an adult on a cell phone about ancient history and the pop rocks of family memories. I could’ve reached out, and said, “You’re a person, and I’m a person. Let’s see where we meet as people together.”
But it honestly never even occurred to me to do it (who would be interested in telling that story?). Or strike that – it’s a lie. It honestly never occurred to me that he would want me to do it (who would be interested in hearing it?) A part of me believes that if I had called him up at that time the conversation would go as follows:
Me: “Hi…this is Katlyn.”
Him: “Who? Catherine? Who’s that?”
In 2006, when I became completely estranged from my family, I forgot about him full stop. I took my ball and moved away and started a life in a new place with a new person. I willfully erased the memories of familydom from my brain. Bits and pieces of childhood memories wilted away in this process – I still can’t recall all that much. It turns out, neglecting memories lets them wither and fade away into useless gelatinous brain goo. Keeping memories is like keeping muscles, you have to constantly use and reuse them, or it’s dunzo forever.
And in 2007, when I received an email from my mother about my grandfather’s death, I didn’t respond.
After his funeral she wrote again. “You’re so angry.” She said. “What’s wrong with you? You didn’t go to your own grandfather’s funeral. What kind of person are you?”
Well. I guess I’m the kind of person who just doesn’t show up for important family events. I guess I’m the kind of person who just isn’t there with flowers in hand to offer up to the family masses. I guess I’m the kind of person who had to run away to a corner of a state, cutting myself off at the veins of my past, snipping one at a time until all the family history bled out all over the back of a cluttered shed.
Besides, showing up to a funeral? It was all a bit too bourgeois for us anyway.