Friday, July 22, 2011

ghosts, part 1

this is my grandfather on my mom's side:

he was from arkansas, originally, one of several in a large, poor, southern family. he left school after the 8th grade.

he came out west with the civilian conservation corps, the CCC. he went to california in a government-issue suit that was too small for his skinny, lanky arms: 

and he met my grandmother in california. although he'd left a girl back in arkansas, he decided he preferred martha, whom he took bowling and dancing several times.

then he brought this los angeles woman - my grandmother - who had always been a city dweller - to colton, oregon, population some hundreds, to live in an old ramshackle farmhouse and start a chicken farm. 

i never met him. he died before i was born. i've heard lots of stories, about how kind and gentle and loving he was, how good with children, how hard working (the chicken farm didn't last long, and he turned to driving a school bus instead), how religious and non-drinking, how he crumbled his cornbread into a glass of milk and ate it with a spoon. 

but still, he's not real to me. i wish he was! but he's a one-dimensional ghost. a collection of stories, stories handed down, edited, biased, and colored by the feelings of the teller. stories that never can communicate the real confusing depth of a person. the cadence of their voice, the patterns of their speech, the sound of their laugh, the words they would use.

this is my father:

he was raised in butte and billings, montana - that picture is of him on the rim rocks on the edge of billings. he finished high school - barely. not much of a traditional learner, he nevertheless read voraciously and faster than anyone else i've met. 

he also raced jeeps, custom built and otherwise, in mud and in drag races in sand dunes. and sold crab on the side of the road and drove a semi and had an appliance store. you might have called him a jack-of-all-trades, but unreliable would have worked, too.

he died before either of my children were born. he'll never be a real person to them. all his complicated, difficult, funny, occasionally charming, sometimes mean, ways - will never be real to them.

sometimes my younger son asks me, bemused: "who's your dad?" 

"his name was bill", i say. "but he's dead now."

i don't even try to share the stories. somehow, it all seems too difficult to me. and i know what the end result will be anyway: someone who, no matter how hard i try, they will never understand. a one-dimensional character. insubstantial. not the living breathing person who so influenced me. just a ghost.


  1. very touching piece. not sure what to say. i am impressed with your knowledge of your grandfather, even though you never met him. i never met one of my grandfathers, and i know too little about him, and sometimes i wish that i knew at least that one dimensional version. now maybe i understand better, why i don't know more. thank you.


  2. i think you should ask why you don't know anything about your grandfather. maybe it would be a good conversation starter. for myself, i hope my boys will ask me when they are older. somehow, it seems a conversation better had between adults. maybe that's what someone's been waiting for in your family, too!