Friday, January 31, 2014


                                                                Don and Mary Lewis

My grandfather and I were pen-pals from the time I was 8. Neither of us was regular about it. We might write back and forth twice a month for a while and then not at all until after the summer when we'd see each other again. His handwriting was small and exact, like type, unlike my grandmother's whose was sloppy and curvy and covered the page. (In my mind she just said "I beg your pardon!") He never wrote to me like I was a kid who couldn't possibly know what he was talking about, even though that's sometimes exactly what I was. Occasionally I'd write to him in the voice of a character, say, a person asking for a job, and he'd write back in kind, saying no, sorry, I seemed like a smart kid but I obviously had a few screws loose. Once I wrote to him pretending to be a jazz musician who played on Bleecker Street; I wrote "Hey Crazy Nannio and Cool Man GP", and after that he insisted that everyone call him by that name. But when we saw each other, he never mentioned the letters; they were our secret.

When we visited my grandparents in the summer, GP usually kept clear of all kids. He came out of his office at meal times but rarely spoke except to say "beat it" or "scram". He means it lovingly, Nana would say. Not true, he would say. There were a lot of us and he didn't like being around crowds. But then, randomly, and usually when you weren't paying attention, he'd pet your hair, or put his hand around your arm and just hold it there and study you. It was always slightly awkward, like he was a teenager put into a room with a strange creature and was trying to figure it out. He liked kids for their  honesty, but was uneasy with their capriciousness. Occasionally he'd need help with something, or feel like having company on an errand into town and Nana would say "Who wants to go with Grandpa to the library" and we'd all look at him, pleading, and he'd point to one of us and say "That one".

I was very close with my grandmother because she was easy to talk to and she paid attention to me. She laughed easily and often, and I was shy and was drawn to her. She loved being around lots of people, even if they were little and needed her to tie their shoes. Compared to her, my grandfather was quiet and mean, not mean exactly, but something that could turn if you got in his way, like a bumblebee. So I steered clear. Instead, I quizzed my grandmother about him: why doesn't he like to be around a lot of people? Because he doesn't come from a big family like I do. Where is his family? In New Jersey. Does he visit? No. Why? Because they've just lost touch. Why? Sometimes that happens. Why? Then there would be quiet for a while and we would somehow get onto another subject like how smart people always ask lots of questions.

When I got older, I continued the pen-palery with GP. I asked him questions about life and people, which he totally ignored. I asked him specific questions about my own life and about love, which he really totally ignored. I asked him about Aldous Huxley who was his friend, and he ignored that too except to say that he wasn't too bright. He addressed the letters with my initials and signed them with his: DL. Sometimes he wrote: "Deir Dre". He kept to details about his day or he told me about what he was reading, almost always history. He said history tells you everything you need to know and he'd recite some odd detail, always with the same type style handwriting on a piece of paper folded like a card. He liked getting my letters and said so; sometimes his response to me was a description of walking down the slope of his front lawn to the mail box. And that was it.


When I was growing up I knew specific details about GP: he got kicked out of boarding school, graduated early from high school, went to Amherst and got kicked out of there, eloped with my grandmother (who he knew since age 12), moved to Virginia and never spoke to his father again. He sang in a night club, worked on a tree farm and wrote for a magazine. He had 4 kids and 16 grandkids and refused to accept a penny of inheritance from his father, even though he didn't earn much money and could have used it. He lived in the desert 5 months out of the year in a house that he built himself that had no electricity or running water and was essentially a shack (my grandmother's voice again: "I beg your pardon!"), at least compared to the house where he was raised.

It's inevitable that, as you get older and surpass the ages your parents and grandparents are in your memory, you start to look at them a little differently, you start to see how they might have seen themselves, from the inside out, as opposed to these figures who cared for you, from the outside in. I always saw GP as someone who knew everything about everything, which is pretty much a decision I made when I was about 5 and never re-calibrated. But after he died, I learned another detail about him that started a shift in my view: it was a detail that set all the subsequent ones into motion. When he was 16, he walked in on his father having sex with a woman who worked for him. It was something that probably only lasted a minute and was neither completely uncommon, nor even completely unforgivable. But it was GP's father's reaction that was both of those things, because he just let his son struggle alone with the consequences (for which he took no responsibility).

Is it true that affairs are common in everyone's families, in the history of relationships? My guess is probably. Infidelity is not so odd; it just encourages odd behavior. It's not the thing, but how you deal with the thing: that's what you study in history. When I was little I always thought of GP as the guy in the other room, the one we had to tip-toe around. Then later I thought of him as a bad-ass, the cool guy who did what he wanted and told people he didn't like to go fuck themselves. But I think both of those things are off, and I did him a dis-service to idealize him and not see him as he was: a sweet and curious kid, unprepared for the capriciousness of others.

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