I know the following facts about my paternal grandfather: 1) his name: Alphonse, 2) he fought in World War I, 3) he got the flu during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and never fully recovered, 4) he died when my father was two years-old, and 5) he was peculiar. Okay, that last one isn’t so much a fact as an opinion, but still, you get my point about the scant information.
Maybe it’s normal for people to know little about grandparents who died so long before they were born but this limited character sketch is in stark contrast to what I know about my maternal grandfather, whose death also preceded my birth. As a schoolboy he had two pairs of shoes: one kept at home and one at school. He traveled to and from school barefoot after losing one too many pairs of shoes gambling on the ferry across the Mississippi River on his way to school. His nickname was Jock because when he was a child, he kept running away to the racetrack to be a jockey. He rode in five Mardi Gras parades each year until he died. He played jazz piano with Pinky Vidacovich and the Mindbenders (greatest band name EVER) during the Depression. He was an extremely progressive thinker for the time and he licked his lips when he got drunk, which was often.
I have always loved hearing stories about my maternal grandfather. He sounds like he was a heck of a lot of fun but frankly, I’d never given my paternal grandfather much thought. That is until I read of the recent death of Frank Woodruff Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of Word War I. Mr. Buckles lived for a full three-quarters of a century after my grandfather. They likely had little in common but somehow Mr. Buckles passing has me grieving for the grandfather who is little more than a footnote in my life. Or is he?
My mother’s parenting of me was profoundly influenced by her relationship with her own father. She encouraged my intellectual curiosity, fostered my passion for social justice, supported my enjoyment of music and jazz in particular, and reveled in my love for all things Mardi Gras and costumes. These are all things she experienced with her own father. So then, was my father’s parenting of me equally influenced by his lack of a father?
There is no doubt that my father wanted me. My parents were married for nearly nine years when I was born and, to hear my mother tell it, he was thrilled when my mother found out she was finally pregnant. And yet, my father’s parenting style wasn’t so much about excitement as it was hyper-vigilant, often distant, and when I think about it now, conflicted. It was as if he had no idea what he was doing but determined to muster through it by asserting an iron grip on the situation. I do have a few happy memories with him but they are very rare. And we didn’t even speak for the last eight years of his life.
I can’t help but wonder, what would my father have been like as a father, a husband, and a man if he’d had the benefit of growing up with his father? I assume the family’s abject poverty was directly related to the death of the primary breadwinner. Maybe my dad would have been less obsessed with, sometimes cruelly, making sure that I wasn’t spoiled or accusing me of being spoiled when I was really just being a normal child. Perhaps he would have been less controlling out of fear of abandonment and my mother would have stayed married to him or I would have been able to continue a relationship with him into adulthood.
Then again, maybe he wouldn’t have been as effective in instilling a solid work ethic in me. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have been as committed to being a father figure to his longtime girlfriend’s son whose own father was killed in Vietnam. And maybe he wouldn’t have been as passionate a coach to the young men on his softball teams over the years.
I can posit these theories but I’ll never know.
After all, everything I have been told about my grandfather could fit on a postcard. The length of time spent discussing him cumulatively throughout my lifetime wouldn’t fill a five-minute conversation. Exactly how peculiar was he? Is the lack of information a function of secrecy or disinterest? The fact of the matter is, I’ll never know. Every member of my family who knew him has now passed away and they took whatever they knew or thought about him with them.
I was once chatting and getting to know my then boyfriend’s grandmother. She inquired about my grandparents. I told her that I had been very close to both my grandmothers but both grandfathers had died before I was born. I mentioned that my paternal grandfather died after contracting the Spanish flu while serving in World War I. Having served in the French Resistance during World War II, my boyfriend’s grandmother tried to correct me. “No dear, you mean World War II. You’re far too young to have had a grandfather who served in World War I.” “No, Mam.” I explained, “My paternal grandfather was born in the nineteenth century.” “Oh,” she replied. “That’s very unusual.” And it is.