The Transmission of Hope

A portrait of a grandfather and his generation-connecting stories
Jeffrey Decoster

WHEN my father died, at the end of 1936, a few months before I was born, my mother moved back into her parents' house, on the southeast side of Chicago. Not long after my birth my mother went to work, and during the day I was cared for by my grandparents, both in their seventies. "I raised him," my grandmother used to say about me in particular, the youngest of four, in later years -- which annoyed my mother. Yet Grandma was at least half right. She did take care of my physical needs, and she was always there in every season: in the spring, when I was told not to track mud into the house; in the summer, when I was told not to let the back screen door slam; in the fall, when she shooed away my friends and me when we came home from school; and in the snowy Chicago winters, when she complained about mittens dripping on the radiator. Even now I can remember every detail about her, from the black slippers she wore every day, with holes cut to relieve her bunions, to her straight gray hair with little sunset streaks of orange, pinned back in a bun. She was tiny, skinny, wrinkled, and so nearsighted that she squinted under her glasses. Her complexion was ashen, but she was as energetic as a little vole, with the quick movements and the stride of someone much younger. She was always in the midst of some crazy project, such as varnishing the linoleum or spraying DDT in the pantry to fight roaches (she stopped that after she passed out one day, smashing dishes in her fall), and she was so busy with these things that she didn't have time to talk. "Get out of the house," she used to say. "Go play in the prairie" -- the name we had for the corner sandlot.

God knows, Grandma did her best. She minded four children at an age when she should have been able to do what she pleased, and she took the job seriously, at least when it came to me. She dressed me till I was in third grade, rubbed my back every night, talked baby talk to me when I was sick, and slapped and cursed me roundly when I misbehaved. But I don't remember her ever carrying on a sustained conversation with me. That was what my grandfather did.

My grandfather was still working in his seventies, as a janitor in a steel-processing mill. His name was Tom Norton. He had been raised on a farm in northern Illinois and had knocked around in various jobs over the years, mainly on paving crews. He had had about two years of education in a country schoolhouse, but he was an avid reader (mainly of Zane Gray, though I once saw among his books a paperback of Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun with a lurid cover). He got home late in the afternoon and had to get up at five the next morning, so he ate before the rest of us and went to bed early. But when he was around, he was a delight to me, because he talked to me -- talked with me -- during my childhood years. I remember him coming home from work, up the alley from the streetcar line to our house. "Hi, Grandpa, got any gum?" I used to say. It was a ritual. He would pull out a stick, the wrapping stuck so tight from the heat and sweat of his pocket that I would have to spit out little pieces of tinfoil as I chewed it.

Grandpa was a strange sight, especially in the summer, when he wore an overcoat on even the hottest days. He was short and bandy-legged, with a long body and a barrel chest. But the strangest thing about him was his color: he was purple. His skin had turned purple years earlier from a dose of silver nitrate that some quack doctor had prescribed for his ulcer. Silver nitrate is used in the development of black-and-while film, and, like film, Grandpa was sensitive to sunlight. He would "develop." In summer, particularly where his skin was exposed, his color was a very dark grayish-purple, but in the unexposed areas he was more silvery, almost white. I suppose that is why he wore his overcoat in summer.

Before he went to bed, my grandfather and I would talk on the steps of the front porch. That, too, was controlled by ritual. "Grandpa," I would say, "let's talk about it," and he would reply, "Well, what's the subject?" "Horses," I would say, or "Dogs," or "Guns." He had a story for every topic. Dogs? He would tell about an ubercanine he had once owned, a dog so intelligent that even the Albert Payson Terhune collies I used to read about couldn't match him. He had had smart horses, too. "I once had a horse I trained so good he'd back up into the same corner of the yard before he'd do his business. Neat as a pin. And what a riding horse. I could just talk to him and he'd go anywhere. Tell him 'right' or 'left,' he'd know. He was almost human."

Grandpa had a nice way of telling these tall tales. His big chest cavity gave his voice some depth, and he sounded his rs in the wholesome midwestern way. He told his stories slowly, not neglecting any details. Grandpa was a great detail man.
When I asked him about guns, he'd tell about going hunting as a boy with a Civil War musket. "First you poured your powder down the muzzle. Then you tamped in the paper. Then the ball. Then more paper. Put the cap on, cock, and get ready to fire." The story had a dramatic coda. "One day I forgot. I put the powder in, tamped the paper, then forgot and put in a second charge. Boy, that thing kicked back and sent me galley-west. Coulda blown up and killed me right there." Then there was the story about watching Chicago burn down in 1871. "I looked out over the field and saw them black clouds rising in the sky like mountains." My grandfather was five at the time, and his family's farm was about fifty miles northwest of the city. Could he really have seen those mountainous black clouds? If he did, it would have stuck in the mind of a five-year-old. It would have stuck in my mind.

*  *  *

Grandpa was not a saintly man. I never thought of him as one even then. He smoked cheap, sulfurous pipe tobacco; he rarely bathed, and angrily resisted my grandmother's demands that he change his shirt. And he drank. He had mellowed in his old age, and I never saw him drunk, though I later surmised that he was a little high when he told me his stories. He never missed work because of drink, but in his earlier years he had drunk on the job and drunk even more after work. My mother remembered his coming home late after stopping at the saloon, slumped helplessly in his buggy, careening into the driveway on two wheels as the family mare, who hadn't been fed or watered all day, made a dash for the barn. (Was this the smart horse he had told me about?) My mother, who had seen too much of that and other things over the years, had lost all patience with "Pa," as she called him when she bothered to call him anything. Nobody else in the house had much use for him either. To my sister he was all but invisible, and to my brothers he was just a funny old sot, the butt of one-liners -- "Hey, Grandpa really drank himself blue in the face, didn't he?" A couple of years ago one of my brothers asked me what the hell it was that Grandpa and I talked about on the front porch, and I told him some of the stories. "So that was it," he said.

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