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The Grandfather Conundrum
My grandparents, the day they met.
[Kidding. Their wedding, September 3, 1949.]
This week has been a blur of chaos and of calm, of finding pleasure in small moments and also being completely overwhelmed by the banality of them. How can the laundry hamper be full already? How can the trash need emptying again?
We go to bed at 11pm these days, after completing a few select chores from the never-ending onslaught, and like clockwork—6am sharp—our daughters will call for us in a manner that changes each morning, but falls somewhere on the spectrum of Shirley Temple to The Exorcist’s Regan, post-possession.
Which version will we get today?
I know it’s my job to keep these two little people safe; to raise them feeling secure in themselves and in our love for them (whichever side of the bed they wake up on). But when the price of dog food just raised to $35.99 a bag, and you can’t buy tortillas for under $5, and a single can of pumpkin is $2.50, and our water bill and gas bill and electricity bill have all raised substantially, and we don’t have full time daycare, and we are watching our savings account drain month after month… well. If the job of a parent is to act as a shield from the pressures and realities of the outside world, we’re getting pretty fucking dented these days.
We are not isolated in feeling the pressures of corporate greed and these mystical “supply” “chain” “issues” (CUE EYE ROLL)—
—and the impossibilities of being two working parents with two small children who are not in school yet. We are not alone in feeling choked by our finances, by the mocking yellow tags at the grocery store declaring “New Low Price” when the price actually has gone up and the quantity down. The truth is, for most of us, instability is normalcy. We are all unsure, perpetually stuck in that moment: after you cut your finger with the knife blade, but before you allow yourself to see if there’s blood. Oh God. Is it bad? I feel like it’s bad. No, it won’t be bad. Is it bad?
It’s also easy to feel lost in the storm of massive world events; and all of these chaotic and Very Big, Very Bad things that are happening swell in their overwhelming-ness when compared to the small ways our lives continue to chug along. When the Republican Party is making concessions with the most hateful faction of itself, how can it be that my grout needs bleaching? When Bolsonaro supporters are storming Brazil’s capital, damaging historical artifacts and trust in democracy along with it, how can we be out of diapers? How can I be googling if Volodymyr Zelendskyy is still alive AND if my local Safeway has eggs today?
The constant line in our lives seems to be uncertainty in and of itself, and yet this is a “normal” state of humanity; all generations previous have gone through something similar and have, as a whole, come out alright. But I refuse to use this as a nightlight, as a security blanket to cling to in the darkest hours, because however idealistic it is to say, I firmly believe that THIS SHOULD NOT BE NORMAL.
Perhaps, then, it’s fitting that I have recently come into possession of some very old letters written by my grandfather to my grandmother while they were dating.
Much as it happens when two people are married for so long, their individual history pre-marriage/kids/mortgage has been largely lost. There are family members who will have a much more concrete picture than I, but here is what I know of my grandparents before they were married: I know that my grandfather was working in Chilton, Wisconsin for the Chilton Times-Journal while my grandmother still lived in Madison, and then Milwaukee. I know the first years of their relationship were long distance. I know that my grandmother, at some point, gave my grandfather “his ring back” which, according to a handwritten letter, made him “the most miserable, forlorn creature” in the world. He included a newspaper clipping of a love poem in this particular letter:
It's easy to get swept up in the “romance” of these letters without understanding the circumstance or the context. I do not know what he said that caused the argument, nor what angered her about it so. I do not know how they eventually found their way back to each other.
From a historical perspective, the spectrums of their lives have been lived so we can see the span of their relationship, but in the moment, did their lives feel at all flimsy? Their future unreliable? Or was this an argument for argument’s sake; one that was meant to “teach a lesson” in that hot-headed youthful way, but that did not make them insecure in the fact that they would eventually end up together?
They eventually married and had eleven children. My grandfather was an alcoholic for a large part of their relationship, and a sober alcoholic for a smaller portion. He died in 1986, less than 40 years after composing these letters promising a life of love, happiness, and partnership. My grandmother lived thirty-two years beyond his death.
I knew her as Grandma Sam: the sassy, vivacious, card-playing woman with the infectious laugh and the penchant for hijinks. But I have only found glimpses of who my grandmother was before she was “wife” and “mother” and “grandmother” and “widow”— in other things I have seen; the inscriptions in her high school yearbooks, for one. And while she had a sharp tongue until the day she died, who was she before she knew how her life would turn out? All of that knowledge, the Emmaline “Sammie” King who existed is knowledge that has succumbed to the ways time makes us all anonymous. That version of her is gone. No one is left who knew her then, and her own letters to my grandfather are lost, too. She is a mere image, a shadow cast by others’ words to her, about her, but there is nothing of substance. The light shifts and she is gone.
What is left of their stories?
I did not know my grandfather, who passed away before I was born. I can only sense his energy in family lore and in the few photographs I have seen, and depending on who you talk to in my family, the sense of him shifts dramatically.
For my part, reading these letters, I can sense his fear.
Although the letters are a snapshot of his life post-WWII, when the world seemed perhaps hopeful again and people were making babies like it was going out of style, he seems to me to be deeply unsure. He seems afraid of the responsibilities he now faces, whether out of obligation or expectation.
On the letterhead of the Chilton Times-Journal (on which my grandfather writes most of his letters), the name William J. McHale is listed as President. His father. He refers to the Times-Journal as an entity, the “bosses” as figureheads that he must “convince” of things: to buy new flash bulbs, to give him the weekend off, etc. Never in his letters does he mention “Dad” or “Father,” and only once does he refer to himself as “son.” Was he trying to create distance between himself and the nepotism that most likely got him the job in the first place? Why do this?
Well, what were the expectations of men in his day? To be strong, to provide, to be the head of a household. He had a complicated relationship with his own father, the details of which also shift depending on who you speak to. My grandfather oftentimes writes of the future and his work obligations with exasperation; with quippy comments and digs at his friends, his boss, the cleaning lady, my grandmother.
It would be too easy to dismiss this as “misplaced humor.” My family has inherited my grandfather’s dryness (apart from a particular family member of mine who wouldn’t know “funny” if it bit them in the ass). I know humor. I love humor. In fact, if humor were a sport team, I would own a large foam hand declaring I am dry humor’s #1 fan. But my grandfather’s “humor” is oftentimes intended to wound without being overt enough to be able call him on it. He questions my grandmother and her decisions in almost every letter, but makes sure to tell her he is, ultimately, joking.
If you’re reading this from a feminist perspective, you’d call him an asshole. If you’re reading this from an artistic perspective, you’d call him naïve. If you’re a romantic, you’ll see his comments as lighthearted, albeit unfortunate. He was probably some mix of all these things: falling somewhere on the spectrum of Shirley Temple to The Exorcist’s Regan post-possession.
(Ah, genealogy. How’s that for a family resemblance?).
And while this “humor” is not perhaps the “respect” he promises to show my grandmother “should she take him back”… whether he is an asshole, whether he is naïve, whether he is just plain angry: what is very clear to me is that he is lost; lost in an identity that is expected of him, and lost in his own romantic ideations. “Times were different back then” is never an excuse for demeaning a person or group of people for the sake of a “joke,” but ultimately, my grandfather was also a victim of his time period because he was raised to think that this dynamic was ok. When one group is oppressed, we are all oppressed.
And he flounders. In many of the letters. And what sticks out to me—flashes like a neon sign when you read between the lines—is that he is unsure of the future to the point of fear. He tries to act like he has his sh*t together in a time when sensitive men (which he undoubtably was, asshole or not— my grandfather was deeply, deeply sensitive) were not allowed to be sensitive.
The letters cover an entire life in the three years they were written: weekend plans, who bought a car that week, his missed archery competitions, the time he burned his finger (twice) on a flash bulb. There is a receipt for a down-payment on a Frigidaire, numbers of lost significance written in the margins of the envelopes in blue pen. There are apologies after other arguments, newspaper clippings, more poems cut from magazines, airline tickets, tales from The Red Cross. These occurrences of a life that seem large in the moment, but small in the categorization of the past; the way that the past categorizes these things.
There are also his frequent assurances he only had “a couple bottles of beer,” “a couple brews,” “lifted a few cold ones,”… a couple, just a couple, sweetheart. He writes of people they know: “He’s getting to be a full-fledged beer hound” and tells a story of friends who fell asleep outside in the Wisconsin winter after having one too many and almost died.
Again, the spectrum of their lives has been lived, so I know how this plays out: the way that alcohol would color their lives for a large part of their relationship, the ways he left my grandmother alone to somehow “make it work” while he drank away their money and denied her permission to work. So the frequent mentions of his friends and their drinking seems to me a problem in himself that he was, in some way, deeply aware of.
And here is my rambling way of getting to the point of all this, which is to say:
Perhaps where we face the most fear and uncertainty is where we know the truth to begin with. We know all of the terrible things that can happen because there is truth in the terribleness. We fear war, death, genocide, violence, because these things have been proven to be just as much part of the human condition as compassion, joy, love.
In the face of all we are facing today, it is why unbridled optimism simply will not do.
The years in which my grandfather drank, he was filled with uncertainty. When my grandfather was sober, he found certainty—at the very least, comfort—but only by turning himself over to religion. He let someone else take the reins in return for the promise of “certainty”: certainty about life, about death, about the in-between.
In the face of all we are facing today, it is also why hopelessness simply will not do, either.
Life continued, despite his fear, despite his misgivings, despite his humanness and the way he perhaps fumbled the ball while seeking answers, meaning, integrity. Life continued, and continues, even after the last period was added to the story of their lives, the book closed and put on the shelf. Life moves forward with or without us, despite our fear of the change. Should we not take some comfort in that?
I try to find myself in my grandfather’s writing. Both his physical handwriting—see, here—he loops his “2”s, and his letters slant dramatically right; see the way that his cursive “r” flips?—and also in the words themselves.
I see myself in his fear.
I see myself in the shadows of my grandmother; the imprint of her that remains.
I wonder at the ways we are human, and where our paths will lead us.
And I am certain that uncertainty brings us together in our humanity just as much as love does.
That’s all for this week. Thanks for letting me share these thoughts with you.
Love, light, and 3 cent postage,
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