Saturday, February 9, 2019

Remembering a Grandfather on the Anniversary of His Death: "Everything, in Time, Gets Lost"

As I've said here before, Daniel Mendelsohn's book The Lost is one of the most powerful books I've read in my long lifetime of voracious reading. I read it soon after it came out in 2006. It recounts the engrossing tale of Mendelsohn's years of searching for information about what happened to his relatives in Ukraine during the Nazi period. Mendelsohn’s obsession to find out the fates of his relatives began when he was a young teen, and continued into his adult life — and The Lost recounts the story of how, miraculously, he eventually discovered details about the final days of these relatives, their murder during the Holocaust.

A key motif in The Lost is Mendelsohn's insistence that "everything, in time, gets lost" (p. 485). Of the many lives lived generation after generation over the course of time, we know only tidbits, only glimmers of what happened in the lives of the rich, famous, powerful.

Other lives get lost in time — very quickly, in many instances: quickly lost; quickly forgotten. Another central insistence of Mendelsohn's story: the echoing refrain of the line from Virgil, Sunt lacrimae rerum. Everything is full of tears, of the pain of loss, of lamentation for what was and is now gone, what might have been but was quenched too soon, how each of us eventually misses the mark tragically in our short human lives.

I think of Mendelsohn's observations today as the anniversary of the death of my grandfather Benjamin D. Lindsey in 1976 comes around again — an anniversary I remembered in a posting here in 2015. But because I still struggle with a sense of … guilt? unresolved loss? … regarding my grandfather's death, I continue remembering it in meditative essays like the one I'm writing now. "There is a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in," Leonard Cohen tells us. I'm writing to  explore this particular crack in my own history. 

I share my grandfather's middle name — Dennis — and yet, as I remember his life and his death, it always hits me so strongly: I feel I never actually knew this grandfather, though I was a man of 26 when he died.

Part of the problem was my own distance, my inability to know how to feel close to any man at all in my family. All of them, from my father to my uncles to the one grandfather I knew, frightened me in some way, so that from early in my life, I tended to shrink from their company and spend much more time with my grandmothers, aunts, and mother.

Part of the problem was also, clearly, that my relationship with my own father was deeply fraught, and my mother did all she could to exploit the fractures in that relationship, extending them to my father's parents, so that we were tutored to think less of them and feel less close to them than we felt to her mother and her family — who also, if I'm honest, did seem much more fun to be with, since they had none of the religious strictures so strong with my paternal grandmother, could laugh, play cards, enjoy a toddy (or several of them), tell rollicking stories, hug and kiss, and, yes, fight like cats and dogs. My Lindsey grandparents' household was a silent tomb in comparison, a boring place to spend time when I was a child.

That household was dominated by the firm, unyielding, very sure and exceedingly narrow, religiosity of my Southern Baptist grandmother. Sunday after Sunday, she'd come home from church and we'd be regaled with an account of what the bible portended for us this week — invariably a lurid apocalyptic account on the order of, "Well, Mrs. So and So told us in Sunday School today that the bible clearly says that when airplanes and such as that fly through the skies, the end is nigh." 

At which point the preacher-daughter wife of my father's older brother would roll her eyes behind my grandmother's back and say tartly that she reckoned the bible might not mean what Mrs. So and So had opined at all, and was not aware that it mentioned airplanes at all. 

As I think about it, isn't it interesting that my grandmother's weekly church reports never contained a word about what she heard her pastor say in the pulpit? Everything she brought home came to her from her Sunday School teacher or Sunday School class — that is, not from the man standing above the congregation in his pulpit, but from other women, women her age, who dared to have their own ideas about the bible and share them with each other. 

My grandparents Benj. D. Lindsey and Vallie Snead,
Red River Parish, Louisiana, about 1916.

Regarding men standing high in the pulpit, my grandmother could, as I also think about it, be downright scathing. As she was growing up, the church her family attended had been pastored by the son of my grandfather's great-uncle. Though his family was very staunchly Methodist, his grandfather had had a sister who married a Baptist man, and their son was a well-known minister in the part of Louisiana in which my grandparents grew up. She and her sisters and their daughters did acerbic, quite funny renditions of Rev. Hunter preaching to his church in his quavery voice, his long finger pointing at the congregation, shaking and wagging as it pointed. They were anything but reverent when it came to how they treated his ministerial directives and sermon style — and as I write all these memories down, it suddenly hits me: this was very different from how my grandmother treated what her Sunday School teacher and friends in Sunday School, all women her age, said Sunday after Sunday.

To return to my remembrance of my grandfather: another big part of the problem in my getting to know him was my grandfather's silence. To say that he was a taciturn man would be a vast understatement. He was capable of sitting for hours in total silence at family gatherings — so that, immediately after his death when I went to my grandparents' house to comfort my grandmother, I was struck so strongly by my grandfather's empty chair there in the living room, by the silence emanating from it.

He had sat in that chair year after year, at family gatherings, never uttering a word. And now he was gone, and I'd never have the chance to know what was inside him as he sat there.

It was not that he was hostile, forbidding, unkind — quite the contrary. He was a genial, welcoming host, and could come alive when pretty young women came to visit him, or my maternal grandmother, for that matter. She, who had been a very attractive young woman (as my paternal grandmother also was), was very fond of him and considered him a model Southern gentleman. And he was fond of her: the flirting between the two of them, very stilted and formal with "Oh, Mr. Lindsey, I do declare!" and "Mrs. Simpson, your smile can warm the dark places of anyone's heart": it was like watching some antique play being staged. All that was lacking was a powdered perruque on my grandfather's head, a lacy fan in my grandmother's hand to replace the funeral-home one with the picture of Jesus she was using to hide her coquettish smile.

My grandmothers and grandfather Lindsey, with
my two brothers and me, about 1954.

What my grandmother Lindsey thought of that flirting, I never knew. It was truly innocent in an old-fashioned, highly stilted way, and they were, after all, very old people (or so they seemed to my child's eyes) as they exchanged these coy pleasantries. My grandmother so dominated my grandfather — she spoke for him, talked over him — that there was very little room in his life for anything but innocent flirting, by the time I ever knew him.

I do know that she felt pangs of jealousy about his visits to the Senior Citizens' Club in town, since she voiced that jealousy. Wild horses could not have brought her to to go the club, since, sakes alive, senior citizen! She suspected that part of the attraction for my grandfather was that he was meeting and flirting with the little widow ladies who went there precisely to flirt over punch and dainty sandwiches with the crusts cut off. And she may well have been right.

There was, that is to say, that other life about which I knew very little, in my grandfather's case, his ability to come alive and enjoy himself when my loquacious and, it has to be said, domineering and oh so religiously certain grandmother was not there to suffocate him. It's that life I feel I knew nothing about, which I saw peeks of only in crusty exchanges between the two of them when he dared talk back to her.

My grandparents visiting family graves not long
before their deaths in 1976.

There was also the love that ran deep between them under that crusty façade, which I glimpsed only after he died and I saw how crushed she was by his death. He died in February 1976 and she on Christmas day the same year. From the day he died, she began to decline so noticeably that, on my several visits (I was living in New Orleans, teaching and working, and didn't see my grandmother as often as I'd have liked) to her after his death, I began to see that she was losing her grasp on things and wouldn't be with us much longer. She then fell in her kitchen, and my aunt and uncle, both living in Texas, decided to take her to Texas, where she spent the final months of her life, refusing food in the last week or so.

Guilt, I suppose: that's one of the names for what I feel. I should have done more to know my grandfather, to have asked questions about his life, to have engaged him in conversation. He sat in silence, and I sat in silence, too. And for years after my grandparents' death, I had a recurring dream that I was still living in the town in which I grew up, in which they lived across town, and I had suddenly discovered they had been alive for years while I thought they were dead, and I had never gone to see them.

These are the thoughts that come to me today as I remember my grandfather on the anniversary of his death.

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