When I was about eleven or twelve, my great aunt passed away in her sleep. She was my father’s mother’s sister, and one of the favorites of the family – the center of our “mountain side” of the family. She and Grandma had been exceptionally close, and so it was we were piled in the family station wagon for the drive into North Georgia for the wake. At the time I knew very little of the Irish side of our roots, and the events of this day would come to be one of the defining moments of my life, the first doorway into a tradition and culture I have come to embrace with all of my physical, emotional, and intellectual being.
When your personal history is written, what would you want it to say? Would you want it to be about your accomplishments; a litany of successes peppered with a few destiny shaping failures in which you learned a crucial life lesson at precisely the right moment? Or would you want it to be more tolerant of the inevitable sloppiness of life; illustrating the not only the times you behaved with the sanctity of the blessed, but also the depravity of the monstrous? Would you want it to conclude with an examination of your relative importance of you social status, or would you be satisfied with a simpler epitaph, stating merely that “he did his best”. And what of your family; how big a part would they play in your story? Would you make an attempt to tell of who they were, as best you were able to determine), making them principle characters in their own right, or would they be relegated to minor roles, trotted out as instruments of plot service or characterization?
We see him in the mornings usually, standing at the corner of two major downtown streets. He picks up pieces of trash and, in an inexplicable fury, throws them with all his might at a small brick wall. When they bounce off, he picks them right back up and throws them again. In the several minutes we sit at the light he will repeat this process over and over, in an obviously unbalanced attempt to get paper bags and bits of refuse to defy the laws of physics and pass through to the other side. It’s the violence of his throwing that draws the eye, the force equivalent to that of a major league pitcher painting the corners with a 90 mile an hour fastball. His face is twisted in a rictus of rage, and each time the trash bounces off the wall, he grows more agitated and his throwing takes on an even greater air of desperation. As our light goes green, we turn slowly past him, wondering if there will ever be a day when he succeeds in ramming the remnants of his imagination through an immovable and impassive reality.
My grandpa could be a right bastard at times.
I guess I loved him, in that way you’re supposed to love relatives you only see once a year or so, but it definitely wasn’t easy. He was a bear of a man, with a gravelly voice that always sounded as if he was either pissed off, or had just discovered that you were yet another member of a group of people he collectively referred to as “retards”. When I first saw the movie “Patton”, I I remember thinking, “Wow, how did they get George C. Scott to do such a good impersonation of grandpa? Did they know each other?” Scott’s performance captured the essence of grandpa, only dialed down a notch to keep it family friendly. He was a shouter, grandpa, and would argue the most ridiculous points in the loudest volumes he could muster. He would insist, absolutely insist, that certain shows like the Republican or Democratic National Conventions be watched on television, which, when you are a kid, is received as an equivalent to a request to execute your own dog. Nevertheless, he’d brook no debate, and whining was strictly verboten, so we’d all settle in for what was sure to be a mind numbingly dull evening, only to see him fall asleep in the first five minutes of his mandatory programming.