My grandfather died on October 25th, 1958. He was 77. About a year later, a book entitled W.F.B., an Appreciation was privately published. My mother, the eldest of his ten children, who would not live ten years more, contributed a piece which she called “Supper at Great Elm.” To begin, she made the distinction between the days when she called her father Papa, and later when, as she and her siblings reached adolescence, they were schooled to call him Father. I, the oldest of his eventual 51 grandchildren, always called him Father, for that was what I took his name to be. Everyone, my mother and her grown up brothers and sisters, called him that. Father was his name, just as my grandmother was Mimi, my mother Mother, and my father Daddy.
“Supper at Great Elm” closes this way:
Soon – too soon, it seems today – Papa has turned into Father, and the big children are sons and daughters whose eyes no longer widen as they listen [to his stories]. It is only the smaller children who still have Papa, and to them the stories are told.
As much as my mother seemed to feel regret for not having her Papa beyond her childhood, she experienced none such with her own children, or if she did, she chose not to show it. She treated us in much the same way he apparently treated her. She loved us dearly and passionately as little children, but not really very much when we were older. Oh, sometimes she enjoyed us. She laughed at us and with us. How not? We all share her dry and often disturbing sense of humor. We all have it in us to be witty in the particular way she liked.
Rarely she was proud of us. Much of the rest of the time she tolerated us in both the best sense of that word but also in the worst: putting up with; enduring. Enough of the time she treated us with scorn, condescension, biting sarcasm, and unconcealed disappointment. She resented, I think, that we grew older.
Only recently a law suit five of my siblings and I brought against our father ran its course. We lost. We had undertaken the action because we disagreed with our father’s intention to withhold from us after his death the income of a trust our mother had been given by her father. Our suit turned on one phrase in a trust document which we felt as a matter of law had been interpreted wrongly. Nevertheless, as I suppose these things must, the full circus played out – depositions, trials (two: the first judge died before rendering a decision), and appeals. My father was alive when the suit was brought. He was dead before the final disposition. The four siblings who did not join us six as well as his widow have now wrapped themselves in the firm belief that the action we took was responsible for his death, that of a 98 year-old man with a heart condition, previous by-pass surgery, a pace maker, and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, who was beginning to make a habit of tripping over flower pots, the last time on or about his 95th birthday, which broke his leg. Thus, we siblings are estranged. Ah, well.
Today, of my nine uncles and aunts on my mother’s side, two survive. Uncle Jim, who turned 91 two days after my 69th birthday, and Aunt Carol, soon to be 76. I called all save one by their first names. (My Uncle John thought it unseemly that I, a boy, should call him John. He told my mother, and my mother told me I was to call him Uncle John – and his wife Aunt Ann – from then on. I did as I was told. When Uncle Jim married an Ann as well, and distinguishing between the two became a necessity, John’s Ann was called – privately, to be sure, Old Aunt Ann.)
I believe I used their first names for the same reason my grandfather was Father. I heard them called John, Priscilla, Jim, Jane, Patricia, Bill, Reid, Maureen, and Carol. Before the unfortunate arrival of my adolescence, my greatest pleasure on summer evenings was to sit out of the way during the cocktail hour in my grandmother’s home listening to all of them talk. My only ambition then was to grow old enough to take my place among them. Sure, they were my grandparents and uncles and aunts, but Carol was hardly more than six years my senior. I could have been her youngest brother, and if hers, why not then, the youngest sibling of all of them? Except for my mother, of course, because I was then a small enough child so that being her son was still my greatest joy and pleasure.
An old friend and former colleague invited my wife and me to dinner one night in the fall of 1999. She was married to a young man who had been my student, years before they married, to be sure. His attendance at the school predated her employment as a teacher. At the table, the young man, recalled an incident from his days in my English class. “You were giving a quiz,” he said. “And by that time, I had learned from your quizzes that I ought to read my assignment twice, so I was feeling confident. I remember the answer to the question was ‘The truth’ which I wrote down right away. Soon I was aware that my classmates were writing and writing and writing. I got worried that I’d been mistaken. I reread the question. The answer was still ‘The truth.’ Rather than reassuring me, though, that made me worry all the more. You must have noticed me worrying, because you got up from your desk, walked over to me and looked at my answer. Then you smiled and nodded.”
It was a nice story. I appreciated hearing it and accepted the implied compliment. On our way home that evening, I told my wife, “Until this evening, I would have sworn that M. was never one of my students.”
Memory is enthralling, or perhaps I mean, I am feeling in thrall to my memories. I once argued with a woman for almost an hour about words that I had heard her say only a few days before. They were – and I believe I can still hear them as clearly and accurately as I did the night of the argument now thirty-eight years in the past – “But he was warned, many times!” In fact, not only can I still hear the words, I can see her speaking them, I can see to whom she was speaking, I can take you and stand where I was standing and point precisely to where she was standing. Yet that night of the argument, she denied over and over and over she said those words or any like them.
In July of this year, my father would have been 100 but for having been dead for two years. My mother died when she was forty-eight. My grandmother died March 10, 1985, only one day before her ninetieth birthday: Uncle John, three months before his mother; his wife Ann in 1965; Aunt Maureen a couple of years before my mother; Aunt Pat in 2007, her husband, Uncle Bill ten months later; Aunt Jane also in 2007. Aunt Patricia, Bill’s favorite sister, died five months after Jane; her husband, Uncle Brent ten years prior. My godmother, Aunt Priscilla, died in 2012, a few months after her 90th birthday. My Uncle Reid died in April of this year.
I remember things about all of them. For instance, I remember when my grandmother suspected I was sneaking rum into my coca-cola. I remember my Aunt Maureen weeping in the arms of her sisters one evening because she believed she was unattractive, and no man would ever fall in love with her. I remember my Uncle John being surprised and grateful that I, age twelve, didn’t shoot at the quail flying between him and me. I remember my mother, during the first moments of her return from yet another stint in a psychiatric hospital, asking me how my broken arm was mending. I had not broken my arm. When I asked what she meant, she said she’d assumed I had since I had sent her no letters. Three months later she died. All those memories are from the summer’s our family spent in Sharon, which is to say, every summer in the lives of my three brothers, six sisters, and me from our births through 1967.
What I don’t “remember” is much of the framework of those memories. For instance, my grandmother, Mimi, and I were sitting on a sofa in the patio of her home. I was under the age of twenty-one. It was the cocktail hour before dinner. Everyone, as was the custom, was dressed for dinner: jackets and ties for the gentlemen, dresses for the ladies. Others of the family were there: most likely my mother; perhaps my father if the occasion was part of a weekend; any or all of my five aunts and four uncles and the spouses of those already married; perhaps my sister Pam, the second oldest in my family; maybe my brother John, the third. For some reason Mimi suspected I had managed to get rum into what was supposed to be only a coke. She asked me to let her taste it. I had no intention of doing that, but how to deny Mimi, especially in front of most of the other adults in the world whose opinion of me mattered? She pulled gently on my wrist with her left hand, reaching for the glass with her right. “Let me taste it,” she said, gently, quietly.
“No, Mimi,” said I, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
Just as my mother began to notice, Mimi desisted. “Be careful about that,” she said, and no more then or ever again.
My relief was such that I gave no thought to her words; but a quarter century later when my Uncle John, alone in a hotel room on a business trip to Canada, experienced the alcoholic bleed which killed him, I recognized the nature of her warning.
I would say I can’t let go of that memory, but that isn’t at all what I mean. I don’t want to let go. What I want is not to wince when I visit it. That’s why I say in thrall. My memories are not part of a narrative. They are scenes running in a loop. Back in the olden days – an outdated phrase which itself is from the olden days – if one didn’t arrive for a movie on time, one could simply stay seated while most left the theater. In moments, the movie, preceded by previews and a cartoon, would start over. My brother John and I once walked into a film called Vanishing Point. We were twenty or thirty minutes late so, after it was over, we stayed where we were. Atypically, when the film reached its explosive conclusion again, we sat where we were for a third viewing. That, by the way, is the origin of the phrase, “This is where we came in.”
At this time, half a year from age 70, I want to replace the thrall in favor of some feeling more akin to pleasure. So I will write of my memories as a gift to myself, hoping this time to leave where I came in.