Tuesday, August 7, 2012

a complicated man

this is my grandfather, william vernon crandall the second:
he was a complicated man.

my grandfather was a strong, hard, stubborn, uncompromising, controlling, unhappy, driven man.

he was a man for whom nothing was ever quite right. not growing up, when his mother - a cold woman - clearly preferred his brother and showered him with treats and rewards while grandpa had to work for everything.

he married my grandmother, audrey, and controlled her completely. he dictated what she should wear, and how much she should eat. she bore him two children, my father, william vernon crandall the third, and my aunt, linda. they were some 10 years apart.

my grandmother was a beautiful woman - sweet and desperate for someone to take care of her. eventually she became a terrible drinker, and when drunk, would rant and rave about the house, brandishing knives.

she went to rehab. when she came home, grandpa still expected her to deliver a scotch on the rocks to him when he got home from work. he just didn't get it, the whole sobriety thing. it was her failure that she couldn't stay sober.

nothing, and no one, was ever quite right. i suspect this included himself. he worked like a dog every day, rarely taking vacations. he made it quite clear to my father that nothing he did was right, either. sometime in high school - maybe at 14, maybe he was so generous as to wait until my dad turned 16 - it was expected that my father would get a job, and start paying room and board to live in the family house.

there were so many rules with grandpa - rules you didn't even know could exist. in the summer, you couldn't sit on the couch in shorts - you had to put a towel underneath your legs, so that the oils didn't get on the fabric. you couldn't lean your head back. and you certainly couldn't place your feet on anything. and don't even get me started on how you were supposed to eat chips (i'm not joking).

grandpa was a driven man, but his children were not. they just wanted to be loved, and they were never enough. he sued my father for not repaying a loan on time. rules were rules for grandpa. there were no exceptions for family.

except he was fanatical about family pride. it was so important to him that i named my first son a crandall. he asked me to never change his name - not even if i got married. being a crandall meant the world to him. but it was an unhappy world.

my father became a drinker, just like his dad, and even drank scotch, just like his dad. he tried to work hard and make money but failure was always present. every time a plan failed he retreated more and more to drink, to anything that could cover up this terrible pain inside him.

my aunt became a heroin addict, and remained somehow perpetually an adolescent, even when in her thirties. grandpa divorced my grandmother and she retreated into smoking and drinking, her daughter living with her, stealing things from the house to pawn for drug money, telling my grandmother that they had been robbed - again!

my grandfather was a hard man, and a strong one. i was never particularly close to him. i was also a disappointment, for many years, as i bounced around the country, had a baby out of wedlock (for christssake), and didn't really keep a steady job. what he thought of me in recent years i'll never know.

my grandfather was also a pitiable man, in recent years. he outlived the deaths of both of his children and his first wife - all of them sad deaths. my father: suicide; my aunt: infection from a dirty needle; my grandmother: a slow alcohol and cigarette fueled decline. his second wife tells me that at night he would cry out. she knew he felt the pain of his disapproval having contributed to their pain and suffering, their inability to just simply live.

he was the last. there is no one left. no one who can explain this family's pain to me. because he never could have articulated all that was inside him - i see that now.

i see that he tried, in his limited way. i know that recently when he said to me, 'i love you', it meant something serious. it meant that he saw - in some small, perhaps subconscious way - how never telling people that you value them - perhaps never realizing, in the moment, that you do value them - will haunt you forever.

william vernon crandall died this afternoon, at the age of 92. his last years were unhappy. he was in pain, from arthritis and knee surgeries and ankle surgeries. he was in pain, from the loss of his children and his estrangement from his entire family. i know he valued me - i know he did.

i just can't figure out how to grieve.

when my dad died, the minister at the memorial service said it best, in a very tactful way: 'he was a man of terrible strengths and terrible weaknesses'. i'd say something like that, now, about grandpa, except he had no weaknesses. he was defined by his strength - a terrible, unrelenting, never ending strength.

if i had some scotch, maybe i'd pour myself a glass. i'd remember the time he and his second wife (a lovely woman - i could fill a page with how lovely she is) came to visit us in germany, how the constant imminent failure of hosting him in germany, a country and our lifestyle there which was guaranteed to disappoint him constantly weighed on me, how we went to a restaurant and he ordered scotch and loudly asked (in english, always in english) for ABOUT FIVE MORE ICE CUBES for it - how when i had safely delivered them to their motel i curled up on the hallway floor in a fetal position, saying i just can't take it anymore.

i have lots of good grandpa stories. most of them are ridiculous. and i am sad. it's a part of who i am - all of it. the family pain, the burden of expectations and disappointment, the mythology of their lives in montana, with all the trying and failing and trying again, the downward spiraling economy, the men working day in and day out and never being happy, the slow decline of the women, trying to be perfect, the imminent failure.

so long grandpa. i already miss you, no matter how complicated you were. this doesn't even begin to do you justice.


  1. An amazing honest portrayal of your grandfather. The loss you feel weighs heavily in these words. You may not know how you feel about him, but you know that it's powerful both good and bad. Sorry for your loss.

  2. Jesus. That sends me shivers down my spine. I don't know what else to say.

  3. thanks for reading, stefan. i never know what to really say, either.

  4. Tough but important stuff to say. Reminds me a bit of Doig and Stegners Angle of Repose....only much shorter.

  5. angle of repose: one of my all-time favorite books!

  6. We read stegner as part of our vows.