I'm a grandfather now myself. Four times. My youngest was five years old just the other day.
It's a venerable position, one not to be taken lightly. We are fortunate if we can be close to them, as boys, before they move on into the great mystery that awaits us all. Grandfathers are revered in every culture known to the human species, as the holders of wisdom and the purveyors of family tradition. Of my own grandfathers, one died when I was a year-and-half old. I have no memory of him, just of a photograph in the big family photograph album my mother kept--I wonder where it got to?--where he's holding me on one knee and my sister on the other.
My mother's father lived on until I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. He was a man with a wonderful, wry sense of humor, a Welshman, the former chancellor of Brecon cathedral. All the cousins of our generation called him "Grimp." When I was a child, he lived with my grandmother in their small retirement cottage in the village of Aberporth, on the Cardiganshire coast--only a few miles from the rural farm where Grimp was born. I recall him almost always in his black cassock--though he surely can't have worn it every day, even in retirement.
If I close my eyes, I see him as an old man with sparse grey hair and sparkling blue eyes, carefully cracking a boiled egg in its eggcup, at the breakfast table. And I remember that he said of me, as a child, that I never saw the joke until ten minutes after it was told. He got a laugh out of that...
So here's another man's grandfather, and the beautifully remembered image of a child confronted with the mystery of dying and death. Tom Russo has been teaching Art and Art History for many years at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. His special passion, as he suggests at the end of his story, is for medieval art and architecture. Here is his boyhood memory:
FROM HIS HEAD TO HIS FEET
By Tom Russo
Winter in the New England can be cruel and beautiful. My earliest memory is of December, 1964, when I was a three-year old and we were visiting my grandparents in Cheshire, Connecticut. My grandfather had been ill for a while and was always in bed. I didn’t know why. This day, there was a lot of commotion in my grandparent’s bedroom down at the end of the long hallway that connected all the rooms in their small, one-story house.
I was in the kitchen, at the other end of the hall, with its light yellow walls on which several shelves held my grandmother’s extensive salt and pepper shaker collection, and was standing by what we would now call the “mid-century” kitchen table with its cold Formica top and shiny, triple-grooved aluminum edge. I know one of my parents must have been with me, but who I can’t recall. Suddenly this long, shiny metal contraption on wheels was rumbling down that hallway with my grandfather strapped on top of it and wrapped in a blanket. It came rolling off the thin rubber mat that lined the hallway and onto the white linoleum floor of the kitchen, being pushed and pulled by two men in strange uniforms. Abruptly, they stopped in front of the kitchen door that led a couple of steps down to the driveway.
I didn’t know what was going on but suddenly I was lifted up from the ground and over my grandfather’s face so I could kiss him goodbye. I remember the warm feel of his skin as I kissed him on the forehead. Out the door they went and into the funny looking automobile that was parked in the driveway. I recall running into the living room then and climbing onto the 1940’s art deco couch covered in red mohair to look out the large picture window. In my memory I can still “feel” that mohair. I watched the odd vehicle, with its cherry-red light whirling around on the roof, head down the wintry road and away from the house. I asked when grandpa was coming back and was told “we don’t know.”
I never saw him again. He died in the hospital.
I have always considered that to be my earliest memory, but it actually isn’t, it can’t be. Because I also remember, very distinctly, my brother and I sneaking into my grandpa’s room when he was sick and tickling his aged feet sticking out from under the blanket at the foot of his bed. This would elicit a small, but quiet laugh from grandpa and we thought it was great fun. Until recently, I wasn’t consciously aware that this must be an even earlier memory than the ambulance event.
Of course, at three years old I had no idea that what was going on was about death. Though now I wonder if my interest and academic research on sarcophagi and eschatological imagery in the early Christian church was in some way subconsciously fertilized by this early childhood memory. I don’t know. But it makes me smile now to know that my very first memory is not about death, but about laughter. Hmm…I wonder what the study of laughter is called.