R was showing me this hunk of wood he preserved from a tree that fell. He wants to make an anvil out of it. With what’s left over, he was hoping to carve a Wind God. As bicyclists, the Wind God is ever present, a source misery and a source of delight. In my case, the occasional delightful, albeit fleeting, belief that I’m pedaling 28 mph on my own, with no help.
As we talked, I had this memory of my grandpa and I said, “I don’t know how to carve…..” I trailed off, the memory of my grandfather at the fore. I asked R:
“Whittling! ”What IS whittling anyway?”
I never knew. But gramps did it. I still have an old jacknife – grandpappy’s rusty jacknife! – that was his. He would sit with me on the porch and whittle away.
Funny how you remember things like that. Little bits of lint and thread and spiraling buttons – that’s how the memories take shape for me anyway.
Thinking about my gramps has always been a bit fraught. For me, I mostly remember a man who I saw as an auctioneer who spent weekends calling square dances at the rod and gun club. He was very good at it, seemed to me. He was especially alive in those moments I saw him. His bitterness squashed down, out of the way for a spell.
But what I remember most about him was the storytelling. I loved spending weekends with Grandma. Just me and her. She would teach me how to clean and cook as I helped her with chores or assisted in the baking of a cake for some church supper she was attending or to bring to someone when we drove further into the outer reaches of the Seven Valleys to go “visiting.” In the mornings, waiting for grandma, gramps would stand at the kitchen window. I would stand there beside him, and he would point out at the river valley across the road. I would try to look, but being smaller I was more inclined to see the space between interior and storm window lined with dead flies that sometimes came to life in a warm winter sun. This fascinated me. Howe could they come alive and then die again?
There, Gramps would tell stories. Tales of frontiersman getting lost in the woods, only to have endlessly circled their camp unaware. Native Americans paddling the rivers of upstate NY trading with trappers. Spooky tales of lost loves or exciting stories about hopelessly dedicated hunters chasing elusive prey that outwitted them into death. A big flood that destroyed everything in its path.
When I was older, there was a time when Grandpa had me convinced to tell a story for show and tell at school. We were supposed to ask relatives about our family history Naturally, I asked Gramps. He picked up this stubby, brown, clay vessel Grandma kept on the window sill in the kitchen. He looked at it, as if listening to it telling its story. He didn’t just tell stories with his words, but also hammed it up. Grandpa explained that the bottle was from long, long ago when our ancestors settled on the Tioughnioga River, paddling from downstate NY. It was the great frontier back then. It was just animals and Indians and trappers. *Our* ancestor bravely set out in a canoe with barely any belongings, and paddled his way to just this spot on the banks of the Tioughnioga.
It was complete horse shit, but he could tell a story.
I think that was around the same time when, needing a poem for class, he taught me this one:
“When I was a little girl
Just so high
My mommy used to spank me
and make me cry
But now I’m a big girl
and she can’t do it
So daddy gets the yardstick
and goes right to it.”
Yeats or Browning or Shelley? They were nothing compared to that gem. These days, my fourth grade butt would have quickly landed in a social worker’s office.
Memories like this make me laugh and think warmly of that house on the banks of that river, that house with the pink refrigerator, the knotty pine cupboards, the creaky winding stairs. That house: it was ugly, shingled, and I was ashamed of it – though I couldn’t have explained why, then. I was relieved when they sided it with gold vinyl siding.
These memories. Always so fraught. Gramps was not such a great guy. He was mean and abusive, the extent of which I only learned last year. I mean, I knew, but I didn’t really know. I thought the worst he did was lock grandma in the attic when he was angry with a poorly mopped floor. It was worse.
Gramps seemed like a good man. I have also always known this wasn’t true. The memory I have, of finding out that he wasn’t so good? It is always present for me. But its lesson was never clearly understood.
I remember walking the driveway with him. It was a big driveway that curved around the house, a squatty U shape. Gramps would take me by the hand, and we’d walk to the road to fetch the mail. My tiny hand was wrapped in his crooked hand, hands I always thought were crooked from early onset arthritis. Gramps must be a hard worker, right? He limped, was stooped over, and his hands were all crooked and stiff looking. Must be from all that difficult factory work – I always thought anyway.
Grandpa looked at my tiny hand in his and said: “You know, Kelley, you did this to my hands. They are all crooked and stiff because *you* made them that way.”
While he probably did this many times, I don’t remember those times. Rather, I remember this experience as an awakening. I shouted back, crying, “No grandpa, no! I didn’t hurt your hands. It’s not true!”
I kept telling the truth. I kept crying. Protesting. I was standing in the driveway, the sun setting on the hill, shouting “no, no, no!”
I must have been one hellah confused little girl before that awakening. I probably believed him, that I’d hurt him. Why wouldn’t I? Adults are supposed to be in charge, smart, wise, your protector. They wouldn’t lie.
On the driveway, the sun setting, I started a process of learning that adults aren’t always smart, wise, or your protector – that they lie. It was like I was awakening from a lie. I knew the truth. Grandpa was lying. Something, somehow gave me the gumption to say no, you are wrong – even if he was an adult. Even if he was grandpa.
Another memory with that same waking from a lie motif is tied up with this one. Only, in this one, it’s my mother who was the one telling the truth, standing up, fighting.
I was in the kitchen sitting on the pink and black fold-away step stool. Grandpa was playing this game he always played. He would grab our hands and then make us hit ourselves in the face with our own hands. He would insist that we were smacking ourselves, that he had nothing to do with it.
Naturally, this was very upsetting — especially when started hurting. I would get mad and say, “Stop Grandpa. I’m not hitting myself. You are making me hit myself. Stop. It hurts.”
He would keep at it.
How I remember that moment is probably different from what really happened. And yet, in the end whatever you remember is what sticks with you and shapes your life nevertheless, no? This moment between my mother and gramps is the moment when I saw a fighter, and wanted to be protected by her and wanted to be her: Someone who spoke the truth. She got right up in grandpa’s face and said, “Listen old man. You did this to me all my life. You are NOT going to do it to MY children.”
Mom always wonders where I get my fight. I always say it was from her. She never believes me. This memory I have of her – whatever its “reality” — it shaped my life. It’s surely helped me become a fighter. In that instance, my mother was a social justice warrior. After all, what does social justice mean at the age of four? It means standing up to a bully, to someone hurting you and others. Witnessing that courage, the spitting gumption, the fight? It makes a mark on a body. My mother spoke truth to that power and made it back down – or else.
Thinking about this, I was reminded of a fascination my grad school mentor, Manfred Stanley, had with a story about Nazis. He lived in Nazi Germany until he was shipped to the US at the age of 6. He remembered enough, though, to be both fascinated by and extremely apprehensive of Nazi propaganda and the process by which otherwise intelligent and good people could become susceptible it. He spent his life worrying about the “technocratic conscience” — the increasing rationalization of society, the hold of technocratic thinking, of scientism and how it could lead to fascistic regimes.
Manny was fascinated by the story of a woman, the daughter of a Nazi, who wrestled with what it was like to admire and love her father, to have warm and loving memories of a man who seemed good and kind, only to find out later that he’d committed monstrous deeds. I was always amazed at the compassion of a man who was willing to remember that Nazis were simply humans.
There was this man, my Gramps, who always seemed a bit worn down and beaten — limping, stooped, crooked, not very happy. He didn’t seem like a bad man. My heart would ache for him, years later, when I thought about him, passed from lung cancer in his mid 50s. I’d always thought he’d lived a terrible, hard life, always being laid off and losing jobs. Poor enough to have no indoor plumbing for his family, to have only a can of soup left in the cupboard, for Aunt Gertie to have to walk several miles to get a doctor because you couldn’t afford it without her help.
Rusty old jack knives, whittling.