Monday, November 23, 2009

Phantom Sensations

"The Favorite" - Grandfather and Gra...
I never met my maternal grandfather. He passed away when my mother was six and her memories were the biography I read. The smell of his pipe, an easy laugh, she as a child running down the street to meet him coming home from work and being carried on his shoulders. He was Irish, the first-generation son of immigrants who came to America in the late 19th century. Like many of his generation, he roamed west and eventually met my grandmother in one of the farming communities of Northern Colorado.

I have a small photo of him -- only one -- and it's in black and white, so the bright, flaming red hair my aunt used to describe doesn't come through. It was an unruly mop and like me, I suspect he was perpetually sweeping it back from his forehead to keep it out of his eyes. He was a carpenter and while my mental image has always been of a man in his late 20s, he and my grandmother had five children, the eldest of which must have been close to eighteen, when he died.

Fate couldn't have picked a worse time to strike. It was 1931 or thereabouts -- I'm not at all certain of the date -- and the Great Depression had begun. Now my German-descended grandmother had to raise a family on her own at a time when work was scarce and her children collected bits of coal from the railroad tracks nearby to burn in the kitchen stove. It's no wonder my mother was never fond of disaster films as an adult; she'd seen reality up close and fantasy was too evocative to be entertaining.

While I think of how dear my paternal grandfather was to me and how grateful I am to have had him around to help initiate me in the ways of men -- one of the essential tasks grandfathers perform for their grandsons -- I've always felt there was something missing. Like an amputated limb, where severed nerve endings produce phantom sensations, the presence of my maternal grandfather is significant for his absence. But I think I would have liked him and as I grew older, I came to see him in his children. I wish I could tell you more but maybe this is enough, and since it's about all I have, it will have to do.

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