Friday
Jul042003

« Elders »

Seven years ago, on the afternoon of the fourth of July, my grandfather Norman died. He died in a rest home that he had been in for a short time. I think my father was the only one in attendence. I don’t even know.

Norman was a Navy man. Very patriotic and proud of country and accomplishments. He was not a rags to riches story, but he did do well, albeit was a very average man with no real individualistic tendencies. He was from the farms of Ohio and took off with the Navy, survived the sinking of his ship, the Yorktown, in the battle of Midway. He finished 20 years in the Navy, and retired, did some work at SDSU and eventually retired from that too. He came to San Diego in 1952. What a place it must have been then. The sky was the limit. Thousands of ex military men and their families settled into the area. Norman and my grandmother Virginia already had kids, the first died in a drowning at the age of 12. Obviously I never knew him. But his death was an earthquake for the family, from what I can tell. My father was three when David died. Another pregnancy was carried to term but was stillborn. So it's always just been like my dad was a single child.

I heard more about this after Norman died than while he was alive. Otherwise, I might have observed him more closely. He was generous. He gave me a few lumps of money outright, and invested some for me. He believed in providing, from what I could tell. I still live in his house, and it's the same as I knew when I was a kid. They had the house since before I was born. So it was a place where I was read to, had family occasions, worked on as a kid (painting, cleaning, building), and was the home away from home.

Gramps in his chair, reclined, just the way I knew him

I was always closer to my grandmother than my grandfather. She was instrumental in the way that grandmothers are; providing a connection to the family, being a mature surrogate mom, filling spiritual voids with tales of faith and love. Norman was the one who provided a place for it to happen. He was often found in his chair. The generation gap on that side of the family is very wide. They were in their 60s when I got here. So they were the archetypal retired folks with nothing to do but live life. Since my grandfather was a young man of 18-28 during the depression era, he had some solid grounding in not wasting things. He was from a farm, so all that hard work ethic we hear about in America was certainly part of his being. I never knew him to be particularly abusive, though he had a temper sometimes, and I have been told that that was a lingering ghost of David’s death. I never knew him to be addicted to anything but his chair. We used to make fun of him saying that he kept the chair good company and kept it from mischief. I still have that chair. Its moved across the room now, and it covered up. Sometimes I sit in it and feel like the man of the house. I sort of am, but I feel bad for it, because I never earned the right to in the way he did. He was not always strong arming people around but it was clear who was boss. I don’t think I knew him as well as I should have. I saw him in the last month of his life. It might have been the last week or so. I’m not sure. But none of us were together when he died. I didn’t stir from my doings when I heard about it. I have never known what to make of death. I didn’t cry or anything at the deaths of any of my grandparents. Beyond that, there is not a long history of deaths near me, so I don’t know how I should feel, or what I should do.

The death that makes me grieve is the death of the family. I never had extended family. Holidays and get togethers numbered only five members at most in my paternal family. That was my dad, stepmom, the grandfolks, and me. Five people, at most. And down to four when my stepmom exited the family in mid July, 20 years ago this month. Then down to three, after Norman died. Then, ultimately my grandmother’s passing left just my dad and I. And that is not as easy as it might seem.

There was no mention of my mom’s family. I don’t know what to make of that side of the family. It's rather large, and I have had short spells of seemingly healthy relations with them, but it has crashed and burned for a number of reasons on three different occasions. I have known some great times and some horrible times in association with those people. Unfortunately it's an all-or-nothing deal. I was always the black sheep of that crowd. Raised in my father's household, I was raised differently than all of them. Some good and some bad to come of that, I can tell you. I was raised a single child, with all the pros and cons that has to offer. But I am really one of six kids, and the middle one at that. I really should have been just one of many. I still have no idea who had a purer motive for wanting custody of me. I think both were right. And both were wrong. My life has continued to be a battlefield between my parents.

When I was 22 I knew everything and acted accordingly. Now I am almost 30 and I might as well be dumber than shit. The problem is, sometimes I act accordingly. One thing is for sure, I see life as a fabric now. Some threads are strong, and some are threadbare. And there are holes that can’t be patched. Not by us short timers, anyway. And we are all short timers here. Deaf short timers too. The world began to reveal itself to me when I was 24/25 and had just moved into this house of my grandparents. I had little understanding of things before then, even though I knew it all just a year before. Sometimes I think I should stop paying attention to these things. But that would put me worse off. I think the world is in a sorry state. The whole world. I have a hard time telling people that. There are a few who either agree with me or pretend to. And, on this day of high patriotism in this country of mine, I want to rant and rave about why we are such a broken country. I want to rant about broken families. I want to rant about injustice against women, men, children and elderly. I want to lash out at the almighty dollar. I want to accost the corporations of the world with no goal but to make money at any cost. I want to stare down the forces that cause people to hate themselves and their surroundings, manifesting in addiction, divorce, terrorism, murder, racism and more. I want to flip the bird to the forces that made us think that things would be better if we just stopped doing what had worked for years. The death of the family is the death of us all. Unfortunately, I know fewer and fewer families that stick it out through the hard times, and at this moment in history, that is all that is needed. We don’t need welfare. We don’t need divorce attorneys, and a million support groups for all the damaged people. We need to stop damaging people! People are damaged by broken familes. Broken families produce more broken people. In a few short generations, we went from a culture of people who needed each other to survive and needed to share and get by together, to my parent’s generation who dropped to the ball, letting selfishness and greed take center stage, neither side having a monopoly on common sense (and we all know that common sense is... UNcommon). And now, a generation after that, a decent and sustaining family life is a curiosity that granny talks about! I wonder if this can go on. It seems like a lost art, a lost language, a lost way of life.

I always had a hard time talking to my grandfather. Maybe it's because we were so different. I still have the flag that was draped on his casket at his memorial on that rainy day at Fort Rosecrans. I think of unfurling it sometimes to reflect. But I could never get it as expertly folded as the Marines who folded it seven years ago. I think about him sometimes and miss him. Even though we shared 22 years on this earth, I don’t know that it was as well spent as it should have been.

I work at a senior center delivering food to folks that are not full participants in life. Some are ill, some are just old, some are disabled. Most of them remind me of my grandparents. I know I see some of their sons and daughters, but in some cases, it seems so far away, the lives of those folks. Most of the people I serve are doing okay, but some seem to be put away, forgotton. I might be the only person some of these people see for a day at a time, and only for a few minutes at a time. It just concerns me that lives are longer, and at the extremes, people are left behind and undervalued. And in the middle, there are the working stiffs that are too socially hip to pay real attention to their kids or elders, or they are working too hard to be present. Some old people are put into homes, because of wealth. How sad is that? We have money and it helps put granny in a home? What happened to “we have love, come enrich our lives with your experience, and spread that wealth upon us while that is still an option”? "Come be the EVER, not the NEVER in our family..."

I like to think of my grandfather’s passing in these terms: he was patriotic, and he had Parkinson’s which slowly robbed him of mobility and coherent speech. He died on Independence Day, symbolic of the patriotism, and appropos of his gaining independence from his earthly struggle toward the end. I have only to quote my musical hero Kevin Gilbert:

Goodness gracious
My grandma used to say
The world’s a scary place
Things were different in her day
What horrors will be commonplace
When my hair starts to gray?

I already have some gray, and I am beginning to think I know the answer. No shit.

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