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.

If the stories had any truth in them at all, Grandpa was a kind of Forrest Gump, shadowing the great events and men of his time. He watched the Chicago fire at five, hunted with a Civil War musket at twelve, and in his twenties was working as a bellhop at Chicago's Palmer House when Grover Cleveland walked in. "Got so close I coulda punched that silk hat right off his head." (That seemed like such a good idea to me that I missed the sarcasm in my grandmother's reaction: "I'm surprised you didn't, Tom.") He briefly held down a distasteful job as a "knocker" in a Chicago slaughterhouse, hammering the heads of cattle, years before Upton Sinclair arrived on the scene.

His best story was also embedded in the events of history. Sometime around the turn of the century Grandpa was working as the boss of a paving gang in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on the Oklahoma border. One day he fired two of his men, Creek Indians from Oklahoma, who then got drunk and barged into the office firing pistols. "I was behind the desk," he said, "on a high stool. They got me in the arm, and over I went. I was under the desk and they coulda just reached over and finished me off. Instead they shot this young fella who was sharpening a lampwick on the other side of the room. He run toward the back door -- shouldn't a done that, shoulda just lied down like me and not stirred -- and they hit him again, this time in the back. Then they left. I went to him, asked if I could help. Would he take some whiskey? No, he said, he promised his mother he'd never take a drink. He died not long after."

Whatever the truth of that story, I am an eyewitness to the fact that something had happened to Grandpa's arm. On the front of the forearm was a neat round scar, smaller than a dime, but on the other side was a gigantic mother-of-pearl eruption in his gray flesh. "It was a forty-four," Grandpa boasted.

Years later, when I found out about another kind of ugly scar, I marveled again at how Grandpa's life had folded into the contours of American history. It turned out that the Creek Indians, the tribe of the men who had barged into the office with those big-caliber guns, did not come from Oklahoma. They had been moved there, seventy years earlier, because white people wanted their homelands in Georgia and Alabama. During that forced 600-mile trek thousands of them died of hunger, disease, and exposure. The Creeks, though, were very adaptable. After some years they developed crops and farming methods suitable to the new land, and became fairly prosperous. But then a federal law passed in the late 1880s broke up their tribal holdings into individual plots; these turned out to be too small and barren to be farmed profitably. The Creeks were pulled back into poverty. So it is possible that the shooting spree that erupted in the office that afternoon was a reaction to more than the single injury of getting (probably deservedly) sacked. Maybe these two Creeks just added up the whole bill and decided that it was time to start paying people back for what had happened to their grandparents and their parents, what had happened to them.

But I'll leave the story alone instead of trying to extract any morals from it. Grandpa was a storyteller, not a moralist, and his stories didn't come from The Book of Virtues. They had to do with dogs and horses and shooting rattlesnakes and hammering cows on the head. Nietzsche once remarked that if you ask a little boy if he'd like to become "virtuous," he'll stare at you, "but he will open his eyes wide if asked: 'Would you like to become stronger than your friends?'" Grandpa told stories about saloon fights that he and his brother ("I and Jim") had fought against incredible odds, stories that were very satisfying to a slightly undersized boy who had lost just about every fight he hadn't run away from. They were PG-13 stories, rather violent, but their saving grace was the fact that they were told to me, right there, face to face, on the front steps, and that I could talk back, ask questions, ask for more details.

*  *  *

"Deprive children of stories," the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote, "and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words." Alas, many children in today's America are in that predicament. This is one reason why the behavior of such children is as incomprehensible to us as our world -- the world passed on to us by our parents and grandparents -- must be to them. All societies throughout history seem to have had their griots, their storytellers, who introduced the young into the human community. But in the past generation America has produced a large number of young people who haven't experienced these civilizing rituals.

Growing up as I did, fatherless but in a middle-class neighborhood, there was little danger of my becoming a gang member. But I wonder whether in the absence of my grandfather and his stories I would have become one of the "anxious stutterers" MacIntyre referred to.

I wish there were some way I could bring a little essence of Grandpa to today's fatherless children. This has to do with hopefulness. In one of his last books the historian Christopher Lasch wrote that hope, unlike optimism, derives not from visions of the future but from memories of the past, memories "in which the experience of order and contentment was so intense that subsequent disillusionments cannot dislodge it." Is there a way of introducing that into the lives of fatherless children? Maybe not. I listened to my grandfather's stories on the front steps of a house that was uncomfortably warm on summer nights and had nothing inside it of immediate interest to a small boy. I listened to the stories and became absorbed, but I listened because there wasn't much of anything else to do. After all, it was the 1940s.

The first sign that the decade was over was the disappearance of my mother's elegant washing machine and wringer, which I had liked to watch as it flattened clothes, cartoonlike, into a continuous sheet of wet socks, shirts, and underwear before dumping them into a tub of clear water. Replacing all of that was a gleaming white box -- very "modern," I thought, like the new 1950s office buildings. The cockroaches my grandmother had fought so valiantly in the forties also disappeared, after we started shopping at the new supermarket instead of at friendly George Valakas's IGA store. And then, quite suddenly, my grandparents aged. Grandma's mind started wandering, and one day I came home from high school to find her dying of pneumonia. She was lying in my brother's bed, her lips blue, worrying about whether the garbage had been taken out. She died a few nights later, and my mother lit a candle in the dark room and told me to pray. Grandpa lived another two years. When I came into the house one day, he had just collapsed, after telling my sister he felt "lousy." I carried him to bed, but he slipped out of my grip and fell hard into the bed. I was afraid I had killed him, and when the doctor came later and pronounced him dead, I nervously asked what had caused his death. The doctor stared at me incredulously. "What caused his death? He died of old age."

At his wake he didn't look much like himself. They had given his sparse hair a slick comb-over instead of letting it go any which way, which was my grandfather's style. But at least he stayed purple. The undertaker had asked my mother if she wanted anything done about the "flesh tone," but she said to leave it alone so that people could recognize him. So, in the middle of the new decade, they buried the man who had figured so much in my childhood, the purple man who refused to bathe, drank, smoked noxious tobacco, and wore an overcoat in July. He had done me a good turn without realizing it, which is probably the best way.

George McKenna teaches political science at the City College of New York. He is a co-editor, with Stanley Feingold, of (1999).

Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; The Transmission of Hope - 00.05; Volume 285, No. 5; page 18-22.