My grandpa’s books

No one asked me to read all of my grandpa’s books. It was not assigned, not requested, and in fact I don’t remember having any kind of deliberation process for whether this was a good idea. He died on a Monday, the funeral was on Saturday, and on Sunday I packed up and went home, with a box of books in the trunk and the understanding that the rest would come to me as it was convenient, as Mom and Grandma got the house sorted. There was one box that almost went awry because it had a few decorative items that were going to another family member. We got it figured out because I asked after those books, because I knew what was on my grandpa’s shelves. I knew my grandpa’s shelves.

When I was really tiny, when I went to stay with my grandparents, they had my crib in their bedroom to give my parents relief, and to be with their only grandchild. But when I got a little older, my designated place to sleep at my grandparents’ house was on a day bed in my grandpa’s basement office. With his books and his desk and his model airplanes. I did a lot of my own reading down there, a lot of writing, a not-inconsiderable amount of daydreaming. And I looked at his books. Some of them I read. A lot of them just waited around until I was older or in a different mood. There were hundreds, and I had time.

It turns out I did have time, and now I’ve taken that time.

I’m glad I did.

I’m really glad that I didn’t try to do it all at once, because that would have changed a good way to know my grandfather better into a grim slog, and I would have resented it pretty much immediately. Instead I worked them into my regular reading–a lot at first, then fewer as time progressed. I was in no hurry to finish, but at the same time I did want to finish. I didn’t want this to be a permanent intention and never a reality.

The first of Grandpa’s books I read after his death was David Pietrusza’s 1920: The Year of Six Presidents. He had actively recommended it to me before he died; it was a gift I bought him that he thought I’d like too, and I did. Pietrusza has a very engaging style, and I wish he’d write more presidential election books. I’d read them all.

The last one I read–yesterday, Sunday, June 3, in case you wanted to know–was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I deliberately saved something solid and well-written for last–I didn’t want to spend the last of my grandpa’s books going “meh,” or, “shut up, that guy.” This book did not disappoint. It horrified in several spots, but it didn’t disappoint.

In between, there were books about birds and national parks, books about the Marine Corps and early aviation. There were lots and lots of spy novels and mystery novels. Things I remembered him getting at Christmas, one thing he got at birth as a gift from my great-grandparents. There was a book that had been his father’s–I think my first time looking at my great-grandfather’s handwriting. Some of them ended up feeling like they were probably desperation presents when someone in the family didn’t know what to get him–either noted down in the front, or I could remember or sometimes guess. Others were books he had loved passionately and read over and over again. I reread classics. I reread things Grandpa had read to me. Other classics–The Red Badge of Courage, Mari Sandoz, Ambrose Bierce–I had never quite gotten to.

I became acutely aware that we–my mother and my grandfather and I–had done a certain amount of division of history knowledge. World War I, for example, was my province; if anyone else in the family needs to know anything about WWI, they can ask me and I will either know or have a solid idea where to find it. Ground warfare in WWII is Mom; air and sea was Grandpa. I took the Seven Years’ War, including the US portion known as the French and Indian War in most American schools. The US Civil War was Grandpa’s. This became clear as a fairly big problem when Grandpa died and entire swaths of history went missing. Reading Grandpa’s books was part of solving that problem. Only part. It was an entire worldview shift. It’s an ongoing worldview shift.

It’s lonelier. In that one direction, even though my life is not lonely. People are not fungible. The person I most wanted to talk to about this project, the person I had the most to tell about it…was Grandpa.

I’m really glad that I have established the tradition of buying myself a book Grandpa would have been interested in, that I am also interested in, for his birthday every year. When I explain this to people, I say, “I’m not ready to be done sharing books with my grandpa yet,” and that’s completely true. But in another sense…when I put The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on the shelf with the other German history yesterday, I cried. It’s my book now. It’s my book that I inherited from my grandfather, like the Kipling was Grandpa’s that he inherited from Great-Grandpa, and now is also mine. But what it meant was that in a very real sense, ready or not, I am done sharing books with my grandpa.

He was a big library user, so I know this wasn’t all the books he read, not by half. That’s part of what made it simultaneously interesting and possible. If he wasn’t such a big reader, books wouldn’t have been important to him enough to make this project worthwhile–and yet, if I wasn’t such a bigger reader, even this pace would swamp my own reading and make it overwhelming.

I have noticed how many fewer books there used to be. Literally. There were just fewer books available, total. Part of Grandpa’s collection growing late in life is that he had both the time and the money to read in retirement, but part of it was literally more books. He read almost exclusively white American men–through no hostility toward other categories, through the kind of omission and affinity that can become natural–but it meant that when I was reading a lot of his books early on, I became aware of how much I valued diversity of all sorts in my reading choices, how glad I am to have those choices and not have to hunt through the literature of 1940 to get the best I can in that regard. I learned a lot about the books aimed at men his age, though, especially war stories. They’re surprisingly focused on romance, on the girl left to wait behind, and also on friendship. That’s a conversation we could never have had out loud. That’s an insight I had to gain this way, after. There have been lots of others, along the way.

A few people who have heard I did this have been horrified at the idea that someone would read their trash as well as their treasures, but for me that was part of the point. Grandpa’s Ten Best Books would have taught me something, to be sure, but there are all sorts of Ten Best lists. The ins and outs and intricacies of his hobbies and obsessions, the places where he put his feet up and read and interchangeable mystery novel–that’s at least as much the person as the things he thought were wonderful and wise. I feel so lucky to have had the chance and the choice to do this.

No one ever checked up on me, no one ever said, are you really doing that, haven’t you quit yet, haven’t you finished yet. No one jostled my elbow. Like so many things in his and mine life, this was between me and Grandpa. I’m the only child of an only child. There wasn’t any question of a group outing, a horde of grandchildren, a pack of us, what would we all do. There was just me. Just me and Grandpa browsing the bookstore, just me and Grandpa for hours in the library, just me and Grandpa stopping off to get an Orange Julius after, or a coffee for him and a hot chocolate for me, and having a companionable read together when we got home. I can talk to people about the individual books, but in the end this is something that I shared with my grandpa. And I’m so very glad I did.

Young ‘uns

A few weeks ago, when we were having a rash of notable deaths, one of my friends was asking, in her grief, whether it would just be like this from here on out. One of her icons, one of her heroes, after another. And Tim very quietly said to me, “Now would be a great time to start liking the work of artists younger than yourself. Every time is a great time.”

Well: yeah. And the immediate aftermath of a death is not the right time to say it more loudly than that, which is why I waited. But yeah. Because you’re not trying to replace anybody. No one will ever replace the artists of your childhood, the people who inspired you in your teens, those who touched your heart and lifted your mind in the first days you were an adult. Those people are irreplaceable.

But that doesn’t mean you go quietly into a downhill spiral of fewer and fewer artists to love. I think too many people do. The studies show it: most people stop liking new music in their late twenties or early thirties. They stop seeking it out–or maybe they never sought it out, and they stop being in situations where it finds them automatically. I think this is maybe less true on average for books and movies, but still somewhat true: the shape of things you seek out slows down.

And it gets easier to feel like the world is getting worse. Like things are getting sadder, diminishing. But they’re not. There’s more good stuff out there. The kids are not only all right, they can be there so that when the artist who was 30 when you were 15–30 and living hard, 30 and partying all night on the tour bus–turns out to be mortal, as statistically it turns out a great many of us are–there’s the artist who was 15 when you were 30.

And no, they don’t sound the same. They won’t feel like being 17 and having your life ahead of you. They’ll feel like being 37, or 57, or 87. And still choosing to have your life ahead of you.

That’s a pretty good thing to sound like too.

Cultural translation, part 375

This is in response to a locked post a friend made about how hard it can be to talk about things when you’re doing badly, without minimizing or feeling like you’re whining. I wrote most of the post and then realized that people might think I was being subtle about myself instead of reacting to a friend. But: locked post, cannot link. Sorry.

Some years ago, a friend of mine lost her partner (also a friend of mine). In addition to his death–as if that wouldn’t have been enough–my friend also lost her voice for quite some time, and there was an incident with a falling piano, and…yeah. It was not a good scene for my friend. Everyone who knew her knew of the string of bad things, but those of us in town had more opportunity to actually spend time with her.

Then I went to World Fantasy, and I ran into some people I know by name but do not know well. They were friends with my friend. And when I mentioned her name, they immediately said, “Oh yes, how is [friend]?” And I said, very firmly, “She’s doing just great.” They reared back and stared at me as though I had grown a second head. Doing great?, they asked incredulously. I, in turn, stared at them as though they had grown additional heads and said, “I don’t know how much better anyone could expect her to do under the circumstances!” Well, no, they agreed. Under the circumstances. Really one could not. But we sort of looked at each other funny for the rest of the conversation.

And it is hard to find the balance between informing people of bad stuff that’s going on and feeling like you’re whining. It really is. But this is also complicated by the fact that friends and other people of goodwill can’t rely on coming from the same cultural perspective on this. Even when one is speaking on behalf of someone else and not worrying about whining–and Lord knows if anyone had earned a whine that fall it would have been my friend–what message is conveyed by what level of response is highly, highly culturally determined. I would have felt disloyal if I’d said something that, in retrospect, was more like they seemed to expect, more along the lines of, “Poor dear, with all she’s been through it’s a wonder she can put one foot in front of the other to get from bed to bathroom.” It was a wonder. But she was doing it, and I didn’t want to give the impression that she was not. They already knew the practical details–I knew this was not a situation where I was going to be called upon to say, “Oh, had you not heard the terrible news?”

And I think one of the major cultural obstacles to overcome in achieving actual communication is how much people are expected to state the emotionally obvious. Sometimes it’s a relief to turn to someone and say, “I’m really sad right now,” or, “This has been very stressful for me.” But sometimes it’s also a great relief not to have to. Sometimes it’s a very great relief for the person or people you’re with to think, “Hmm, gee, Friend’s partner died, maybe Friend is REALLY SAD, I’ll do something nice,” without having to spell out every moment: “Still sad. Yep, still devastated. Life still in chaos due to very sad thing, yep yep.”

Sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes that’s just how it works out. But wow, is it another layer of difficult just when people don’t need more difficult. And it’s a thing to keep an eye out for a) when writing people from different cultures and b) in trying to be compassionate in, y’know, real life.

I hate the second week of March.

Today I’m wearing the shirt I bought when my grandpa was dying.

There are drawbacks to having a very sticky memory, and this is one of them: Grandpa died six years ago, and I have never once worn this shirt without thinking of the circumstances of its purchase. It’s a lovely bottle green, it’s a fabulous color for me, the fabric is soft…but it is permanently the shirt that I bought when my grandpa was dying.

I sometimes think that after six years I should stop having this lurching vertiginous feeling every time we do something with my side of the family and I’m in charge of making the reservations or buying the tickets or whatever. Every time–every single time–I have a horrible moment of conviction that I have reserved (or bought or whatever) the wrong number. And my brain doesn’t forget at those times. It’s not that I have moments of thinking Grandpa is still alive. Because what I invariably think is, “Where’s Grandpa going to sit?” So the thing in my brain that lurches like that knows that it’s Grandpa missing. But it happens every time, and it’s not tied to a number. My brain knows that we are different numbers at different times. We’re just…always one less than we’re supposed to be, whether we’re four or five or six or seven or…I don’t know, it could get up to seven billion, I suppose, and it’s still seven billion but no seat reserved for Grandpa.

I hate the second week of March.

And it’s not just Grandpa; Gran died on the same day as he did. I have this sense of doom every March. It’s good to keep an eye on that sort of thing so that you don’t mistake it for actual knowledge, and I’ve had this same sense of doom last year and the year before and so on, with no actual doom attached. My dark forebodings should not be reinforced with confirmation bias. The people I love who are going through tough medical things are not any likelier to have a hard time because of my feelings about early March.

Still and all. I am always glad when we get through this bit.

What mid-March is, threaded through

We have all sorts of things going on, tasks and chores and ideas, attempts at healing and social things, worries and relief. And threaded over and under and around and through it is the fact that we are coming up on the fifth anniversary of my grandpa’s death. Like his mother before him, he died on March 16, cementing the next day’s St. Patrick’s Day associations for me pretty permanently. Maybe there’ll come a time when I don’t think of it, but I kind of doubt that. On the day he died, I was so glad and so grateful to have a loved one cooking corned beef and cabbage for us because it was hot food made with love, but now the association is so strong I hope I never eat it again.

I brought all his books home and cataloged them and stacked them up, and I have been reading through them. Some of them I bounce off, some I read through, and you see them in my book post. There were hundreds. Now there are less than twenty. When I realized the five-year anniversary was coming, I was grateful that there were not fewer, because I will soon be done reading Grandpa’s books, and if there had been two or three, if there had been only a handful, it might have felt like the right thing to try to finish on the anniversary, and I think that would have been wrong. I think that would have been too much synchronicity to bear, and yet it would have been hard to resist that kind of narrative pull. So I will just keep at it steadily, and I will finish reading them when I finish reading them. The universe is full of ragged ends and things that don’t come out evenly, and that is better than okay, it is good. The tidy packages, the tied-up strings, they are not how life works.

When I have finished reading my grandpa’s books that he owned, I will be okay. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I will cry. I will probably cry like my heart is breaking all over again, because it will be one more thing, one more piece of loss. But I can never lose my grandpa all the way. I knew that the day he died, and I was right; I know it just as much now. Every year for his birthday I buy myself a book for Grandpa and me. And it’s a good tradition, but that thing I said up there about things coming out evenly, I meant it, so if I’m somewhere in an odd little bookshop and I find a book for Grandpa and it’s not coming up on February 1, I buy it for Grandpa and me anyway. Or I get it from the library for Grandpa and me. Of course it’s not the same. It’s not remotely the same, that’s the horrible part. But I can only do the part I can do, and this is the part I can do, the stories, the remembrance, my side of the conversation.

And putting more of the protag’s grandpa in the book I’m revising. Because he belongs there, and because.

Being imperfect, together

In my internet wanderings, I ran into this open letter to lung cancer patients who smoked. And…I feel pretty strongly this way. I run into obits sometimes where they specify that someone died of lung cancer even though they never smoked, and I think to myself, because if they had, their families wouldn’t have permission to grieve? My grandpa smoked, back in the day, and he quit before I was born, but his COPD contributed to his death. He didn’t have to earn my grief with perfect lung-related behavior. He didn’t even have to earn my grief with perfect Grandpaing. Not a one of us is perfect. Not a one, though some of us are amazing. Sometimes we get a chance to do better. We try our best, except sometimes we don’t. We try our best at the things we can manage. Except sometimes we don’t. And we love each other anyway. And then we’re gone, and we’re allowed to grieve. We don’t have to justify our grief with righteousness.

I get upset about this in the fundraising letters from the charities I support. Habitat for Humanity sends me these letters about these families in trouble, all the good choices they’ve made and how they’re in trouble anyway, the virtuous poor, and I think, okay, yes, I believe in those virtuous poor, I believe that happens sometimes, but. But. I also believe in people who didn’t make perfect decisions and still need a place to live. It’s all right to say, “We believe that it’s not okay for people to be homeless.” It’s entirely fine to say, “We are people who think that other people should have a safe warm place to sleep. Is that who you are too? Join us. Be people who think that too. Be those people, together.”

Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

I never met the man, but you can spot him at whatever age. Whether you’re watching the Weavers videos from 1951 or the concerts before the first Obama inauguration in January of 2009, Pete led with his grin. You can see immediately that it’s the same guy because he’s lifting his chin and grinning in the same way. With so many 94-year-olds, you’d say, well, he had a good run, or, I guess he was about done, it was time for a rest. But with Pete, no; with Pete there was still so much to do. There was always so much to do.

Because Pete Seeger was one of those people who appeared to honestly and truly believe in improving the world. All the way through. He was blacklisted and shut out for so many years after the HUAC testimony, and he kept on singing about making the world a better place, and he kept on making the world a better place. I’m a Gen Xer, the young end of Gen X; grunge and cynicism are my coming-of-age music. Also I am not a fan of the banjo. But in college I discovered Pete Seeger, and I just couldn’t resist. Fell in love with the Peteness right away. And when you hear him in person, as we did in 2011, when you hear him sing “We Shall Overcome”–not only do you believe for a minute that we shall, but for a minute you can even believe in we. Even if you’re a congenitally grumpy Xer. Because Pete.

Just last week, Timprov and I were driving home with four new tires and zero new photos (…long story), and I asked what he wanted on the CD player. And he said, “I don’t care…wait, have we got More Together Again?” And we did, so we put it in: Pete with his grandson Tao and Arlo Guthrie and other musicians they know and like. And we sang along all the way home, “Midnight Special” and “Abiyoyo” and “Guantanamera” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “This Land Is Your Land,” all of it, all of it, through the dark night home with Pete.

Edited to add: I realized the obvious thing to link. Here, have Precious Friend.

Marylyn

I was worried, because I hadn’t heard from her at Christmas in the last few years, not even just a signed card. I made out my Christmas card list today, and when I wrote, “Marylyn,” I stopped and looked at it and hoped, and hoped, and wondered.

And tonight I find that my Marylyn died on Tuesday night.

She was my seventh grade English teacher, one of the two absolutely formative English teachers I had as a writer. (Ron Gabriel is gone from us also.) After that she was my friend, genuinely and honestly my friend, and we would get together and have coffee and pie at the Garden Cafe. She was one of the first adults who was my friend when I was a kid, not because of my parents but because of me, one of the first adults who taught me how good that can be, being friends across decades. The kids I have in my life, if I am good for them at all, owe a portion of that goodness to Marylyn Bremmer.

I feel like I should be able to put words on the flood of memories I have, on her merry laugh and her grave tones of serious advice, on the time she terrified a room full of smartass seventh graders into maybe taking a little better care with each other from then out. On the imitation she did of a Texan doing Mark Antony’s funeral oration. On the way she looked at the description I’d written of my friend Becca and said, “She sounds so very much like my Charlotte,” and we could talk about girl friends and lasting friends and what all that meant. I’ll pull myself together and write something coherent in the condolence letter to her family. But mostly I just keep hearing her chuckling in my head, saying, “Now remember, dear, when you publish your first novel, make sure the dedication page has it m-a-r-Y-l-y-n.”

Do not approve. Am not resigned.