Friday, March 19, 2010

My Head Hurts

Grand-Pa & Grand-Ma, circa 1934

 Joshua's 5th Birthday, North Tonawanda, 30 December 1982.  Pictured (L-R): Nathan Grand-Pa, Mitchell, Joshua

Sixth Avenue, North Tonawanda, circa 1968.  Grand-Pa with (L-R) Jeffrey, Christopher, and Greg

 Christmas Eve, mid-1980's.  Nathan, Angela and Josh listen to Grand-Pa fiddle

I'm guessing the photo was taken on Sixth Avenue, mid-1970's.  After a truly horrible round, Grand-pa told me that
he loved the game of golf too much to ever again see me play it.  I've done my best to honor his wishes.

(The title of today's entry is another in our ongoing and occasional series of references to obscure rock songs.  Today it's the classic "My Head Hurts" by The Spanic Boys, a father-son duo from Milwaukee who enjoyed a brief spurt of minor celebrity in the late 1980's.  They were good, in a hipstery sort of way.)

I visited my Grand-Pa, just before he died.  He was 95, and he and his wife (my step-grandmother) were living in an assisted care facility in Ocala, Florida.  Grand-Pa was hovering in and our of sentience.  This led to some funny moments, like when we were sitting in the cafeteria at dinner time (trust me, there is nothing more dreary and institutional than dinner in an assisted care facility: short of the squeezable food tubes the Space Shuttle astronauts eat, this is the blandest, bleakest, least charming nourishment in the cosmos).  He turned to me, and said, "Boy, oh boy, Peter.  This is some cruise, isn't it?  This is some cruise!  Hey, how did you get on the boat?"

(Speaking of food and Grand-Pa, one of my favorite childhood memories is eating breakfast at Grand-Pa's.  He liked to make french toast, with a generous pat of butter, a sprinkling of powdered sugar, and a hint of vanilla.  Delicious.  

And one of my favorite stories about Grand-Pa involves food.  Grand-Pa was working the swing shift at the Wurlitzer plant.  He came home one night, tired and hungry, and rooted around in the pantry for something quick and easy to eat.  He opened a can, fried up the contents, and enjoyed a satisfying repast.  The next morning, he said to my grandmother, "Mary, I cooked up a can of that hash last night.  It was delicious!  You need to buy more of that stuff.  What's it called, anyway?"

Grandma looked at him with a withering look that only a five foot nothing, whip smart, chain smoking, wig wearing, daily Mass going little Polish woman can muster, and replied, "Alpo.")

So I'm in Ocala, talking with Grand-pa, who sometimes thinks he's talking to his son, and sometimes thinks he's talking to me, and sometimes thinks he's talking to a buddy from the R.T. Jones Lumber Yard, the place he went to work back in the 1920's, when he dropped out of elementary school to help support his family.  

This leads to some uncomfortable moments.  Grand-Pa made it clear, as he reminisced with whom he thought was his old R.T. Jones working buddy, that in his younger days he'd been, well, um, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, "a rambler and a gambler and a sweet talkin' ladies' man."  

This is not something you want to know about your grandfather.  You want your grandfather to be the old guy who takes you sledding and makes you french toast and plays his violin on Christmas Eve.  You don't want to think of him looking like a Polish John Garfield, hard and handsome and making the ladies swoon.

That's the thing about family history.  The dead aren't statues, or myths, or philosopher kings; they're people.  And people are messy.

Earlier this week, I obtained the full military record of a distant ancestor.  His medical record indicates that he did not live an exemplary life.  It was depressing, to think of this boy entering the service at fifteen, and learning all his values, learning how to be a man in the sad, sinful world of the bivouac and the barracks hall.  His life ended early, in part, I am sure, because of diseases he contracted while still in his teens.

It was depressing to think of the girls, the desperate, outcast girls who made their living consorting with soldiers, to think of their hopelessness, their shame.  It was depressing to think that somehow, across generations, I carry a piece of that exploitation, for I bear the exploiter's name: I live because he lived.

We do not have the right to choose our heritage, to pick our ancestry.  They are who they were, every whit, not just the lovable or noble or kind parts, but the dark stuff, the shameful and secret things, too.  And they are all ours, the saints and the sinners, the cowards and the heroes, the drunks and the do-gooders, the pious and profligate, all calling to us, all needed to be linked to us, to be remembered by us, accepted by us, respected by us.

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