Thursday, July 1, 2010
Look at him-- I mean, you know... *Jesus*! Doesn't he look like a Dashiell Hammett hero?
Yeah. I always thought so. And if you read his obituary you'll see that Dashiell Hammett had nothing on Grandpa.
There has been some argument in the family as to where I got my eyes--are those Rau eyes or Chaney eyes? There has also been some argument as to where I got my ability to tell a good story. Is that a Pete Rau thing or a Ken Chaney thing? But there are some things that I got from grandpa that will never be disputed.
My parents split when I was six or seven, and by age eight I found myself arranging visitations with my mom. She wasn't up for the job, so I needed to get on the phone and call my grandma or grandpa and decide who was taking and who was dropping off etc. One family one way, the other family back.
Grandpa almost invariably drove.
I remembered this during grandpa's memorial for a couple of reasons.
One was that for a man with such a stainless-steel-scalpel precision with words, my grandfather was also known for his silences. Long, thoughtful silences. Brooding silences. Frighten-your-children's-friends silences.
I, on the other hand, was not.
I imagine those rides now, and it was me, buzzing like a bumblebee (which he could kill with one smack of his massive hand--I watched him do it once and was very impressed) and grandpa: foreign correspondent and war hero, looking at me during stoplights and wondering if you could damn a torrent like that or if it would maybe slow up to a trickle sometime if he let it run it's course.
But he never complained. My dad and stepmom did (things were complicated) but for grandpa, coming to get me and let me knock around the house like a bored marshmallow was never in question. Apparently, for all the fact that his children had a hard time getting friends to stay the night (Is your dad going to be there? He is? Oh, well, no then. I have to feed the dog!) grandpa was all about that silent, probably happy drive, to be there for his family.
He wasn't a martyr by any stretch of the imagination--he could be gruff, and sometimes sharp. His favorite expressions were things like "Confound it!" and "I am surrounded by incompetence!" I think, like my husband, he wouldn't have questioned the subject matter of my books--but he might have asked me if I knew other words. He was known for a Sahara quality sense of humor--I seem to remember a family legend, (among many) wherein Grandma got so frustrated at my mom and Aunt Carol that she threw up her hands and snapped, "Ken! Come here and speak to these children!"
Grandpa raised an eyebrow, walked into the room where his young daughters were dripping with warm breakfast cereal, raised an eyebrow, and said, "Hello, children."
And then walked away. (One of my favorite stories as a kid. For some reason, it just confirmed the awesomeness that was grandpa.)
One of the artifacts (and there were many) at grandpa's memorial was a homemade target for target practice. I remember this thing-- he had an extensive back property and he'd set that out on the back porch and shoot at it with a bb gun. I did not, as a child, reflect on how awesome it was that he made this thing out of a small motor and a piece of canvas and some other stuff he had in his workshop (although it was awesome) but I do remember that it wasn't the only thing he shot at. Apparently he shot at magpies and when asked why that particular bird would reply that one of them had attacked me. Since I don't remember the incident, I think the consensus was that it was a good reason to give people so he could shoot at a creature that annoyed him by it's very drive in life (which was, in his opinion, to annoy the hell out of him.)
Like I said, I knocked around that house a lot as a kid. I lived for the visits of my aunts and uncle (they weren't that much older than I was, but they could do grown up things. And they TALKED to me--a thing I will always treasure!) Grandpa was always up for taking mom and I to the movies, or letting me talk to his friends. He and grandma had many--and for all the weirdo shit that could come out of my mouth (a direct result of me reporting to the world everything I saw without the filter of tact, discretion, or anything resembling common sense) to their credit, they didn't lock me in a room like Boo Radley and pretend I didn't exist. I imagine they gritted their teeth and hoped for the best sometimes, but they introduced me every time, and I always felt so grown up!) And on Sundays, if I was lucky, we'd get to play games.
I sucked at jigsaw puzzles (still do) and he tried to teach me chess. I was fascinated by it (still am) but I suck at it for the same reasons that Cory, my heroine, sucks at chess. It requires subtlety, planning, and an understanding of the overall workings of the game. My approach to chess is basically my approach to computers or politics or anything else in life: Make thing go. Thing not go? Fuck thing. MAKE THING GO!
Grandpa was smarter than that (his sharp intelligence was legendary) and so I quickly frustrated him here.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Well, I thought I'd do this and this and this and this, and you know then I'd..."
"Lose. In two moves."
But Scrabble? Oh *that* we could play. It was playing Scrabble with Grandma and Grandpa that I realized I really *was* proficient with words. It wasn't my imagination, and it wasn't actually a handicap, in spite of that talking problem. To my memory, Grandpa was the first person to make me feel like being good with words was important. (My dad and stepmom were very practical--I sucked at cleaning my room and washing dishes, and I seemed to spend an awful lot of time day dreaming, and school smart was nowhere *near* as important as street smart so there was obviously something lacking in my personal makeup. If only I could be more like my stepbrother, I'd be able to make something of myself.) He worked in media (had, in fact, earned awards for his documentary film making for the California Water Board) and I remember that he was involved in some way with a news show put on by children.
"I would put you in there for an audition, but they're already accusing me of nepotism because your aunt works there." (I'm pretty sure she got the job without his help.)
"I'm too fat to be on television."
"You can string two words together in a sentence which is more than half the kids there as it is."
I remember discussing colleges with him, and being told under no uncertain terms that I was not to go to Cal-Arts Valencia.
"Because the only thing you'd learn there is..." *mimes inhaling*
"Oh, Grandpa, I could do that here if I wanted!"
But he was adamant. It's not like I could have afforded to go anyway, but it was, to my knowledge, the only time anyone ever suggested that there was a school out there that was not good enough for me, instead of the other way around. I remember telling him as a kid that I was in ALPS-- Advanced Learning ProgramS, and he was less surprised by the fact that I was in it (which was sort of a miracle in itself... my second grade teacher assumed I was retarded because I forgot to brush my hair in the morning and she didn't believe that there was no one there to remind me. The fact that my fourth grade teacher put me in ALPS was awfully damned cool) than by the fact that the acronym was better than the one his kids lived with.
"Yeah, your aunts and uncle were in MAL. I was like "What the hell is that? Something bad? Mal-adjusted? Mal-formed? Mal-icious?" Turns out it stood for Markedly Advanced Learning. ALPS is much better."
He simply assumed that his children and grandchildren were bright and could succeed.
Family legend has it that Grandma and Grandpa had four girls because they were trying for a son, so when Phil came along, they could stop. One of the things that I pointed out at the memorial was that the truth is, if ever a man delighted in his daughters and rejoiced in his sons, it was grandpa. For all the fact that he was a big man with a gruff voice and a sharp sense of humor, his children could bring about an amazing tenderness. I saw him tear up at my aunt's wedding--and my uncle's too, truth be known. I remember him comforting my aunt Monica after a bad break-up and realized that girls would never get too old to cry on their dads. (Something I kept in mind as I grew up.) The birth of his grandchildren or great-grandchildren brought out the shiny eyes and deep emotion. I remember with Squishy, in particular, he was extremely grateful to have the chance to hold her. Of course Squishy came along late in his life, and his second tumor had been diagnosed--he truly felt blessed to be around then. (I remember walking him and grandma out to their car and him saying, "Well, as busy as you're going to be, we probably won't see you until Thanksgiving. When we'll be thankful if I'm still around!")
Grandpa was a writer--my son has one of the war stories that he published, hammered out on an old manual typewriter, and it's one of Big T's prized possessions. The story was about how, after his transport plane had been shot down off the coast of Greece and he'd swam toward shore with a broken leg, he'd been taken in by Greek fishermen. They'd rescued him (and taken his wallet) and he'd been stuck on the island of Greece for six or so months, listed as MIA, but, at the time, helping with the Greek resistance. It was during this time that he was awakened in the middle of the night to deliver a baby in a house right next to Nazi headquarters because apparently, the locals assumed that just because he was an American, he could do anything. He delivered the baby, and when the S.S. came knocking on the door to see what all the fuss was about, the family hid him in a grain bin. Eventually he got out, and the family was so grateful, they named the baby after him. Poor kid--I bet she took crap for that name her whole life. So did grandpa, judging by the closing line of the story.
The story was all true--most of his published stories were, and it's extraordinary. One of the most extraordinary things about it (and about most of grandpa's writing) was the juxtaposition of the terrifying (like, say, being forced to swim with a broken leg) and the mundane (like after all that, you get robbed by your rescuers.)
Now THAT is the thing that I got from grandpa that will never be disputed. That was part and parcel of who he was, a way of looking at life, at people, that will always be a part of me, and I'm grateful.
One of the things I remembered for the memorial was that I had to do an interview once with my grandparents, because they were survivors of the Great Depression. I remember that Grandma was full of praise for That Man, and I assumed that Grandpa would be too. And then he told me that his family had done pretty well during the Great Depression, until FDR's farm acts had made making a living as a farmer a little more difficult.
"Oh," I said with surprise. "So you must not have been as impressed with FDR as Grandma."
"No," he said mildly, "It was okay. It helped the country get better, that's what mattered."
Now we had just finished watching a rather terrifying documentary called Gaslands this weekend, (watch it if you like--but buy plenty of bottled water first) and I had despaired for a moment, watching our country's natural resources being pillaged for mindless greed. I thought, "Where are we going to find people who actually think of the world first, and themselves second? How do we get human beings to not be such stupid bastards and start giving a little to get back a secure future?"
And then I had to prepare for the memorial, and I remembered that moment with Grandpa. I realized that I had grown up and married a man much like Grandpa and that my sons were like him, and so were my sharp-tongued, clever daughters. I realized that my uncle was like him, and so were *his* sons, and so were my aunts and my aunt's sons, and that this sort of attitude--this sort of, "Of course we can win the war/save the world/deliver the baby next to the SS headquarters but do it with our tongue deeply implanted in our cheek" sort of attitude is still here. It lives on.
That sort of thing gives me hope.