When the news of the day seems particularly big, I wonder what my parents would think about it all. They're dead, and gone with them are all the stories and family lore that I only half-listened to when I was younger. Rattling around in my head are half-remembered snippets of conversations about their childhoods in the Great Depression, long-ago presidents and wars, those scary Beatles with their rock and roll, pulp fiction and radio dramas. They lived through World War II, the atom bomb, the invention of television, Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, pet rocks, disco and the bad old 70's, the Cold War, the Iranian hostage crisis, recessions and more. They never saw my journalism career leap beyond the small-town stage. They never met their granddaughter. Then again, they haven't had to live through the worry of my blood-clot scares nor their other son's repeated deployments to wartime Iraq and Afghanistan.
I wish they had kept journals, or blogged, so I could show what they wrote to my daughter. But they didn't keep diaries, and there were no blogs then, and I can only make out every other word in my mother's cursive script in letters that she wrote. She had me late in life, and she died in 1986, when I was 24, just starting out. Leukemia, after she beat colon cancer.
My father, Ed, or Eddie, depending on who was talking, lived about 11 years longer than my mother, Kay, a surprise to him, considering his fondness for booze, cigarettes and red meat, and her abstention from most vices. He was a man of the old school, reserved when it came to affection, but often loud, angry, not always kind to her, or any of us. Before he retired, he worked as a bureaucrat for the national security state, and the cold war defined his adult life, as the war in the Pacific had defined his youth. He flew to then-exotic places like California and Florida when jet travel was still in its golden age, returning with stories of the Magic Castle, the Playboy Club, and beaches in January. He was a wit, sometimes the life of the party, always ready with a joke, the center of attention. My brother and I were his TV channel changers, his butlers. "Get your old man a beer out of the fridge." Indeed.
My old man kicked the bucket from lung cancer complications in 1997, and my uncle was the executor of his estate.
Long after the paperwork was done, my uncle mailed me a package of documents -- Army records from my father's Philippines tour, various vital documents, security clearance forms for the job with the Defense Department, a weathered brown wallet with a Playboy Club card, a stopped watch. And there was a spiral notebook, too, of some jottings, from mid-1986, not long after Ma died, leaving him rattling around alone in that big old house up in the frozen wastes in that rural air force town that he thought would be a great place for us to grow up (it was) and maybe even stick around (boring and in decline, so we didn't). They had lived for several years in the vicinity of New York City, but I know little about those years, apart from left-over photos (like the $1.25 souvenir shot above from Nick's in Greenwich Village, a jazz joint) and stories of living in Shanks Village, an outpost of former barracks turned into housing for veterans in Rockland County.
Ed was never a good investor, lost his shirt in mutual funds once, but stuck with the old standbys of passbook savings, mortgages, pensions, certificates of deposit, a federal pension. In the end he ran up a lot of credit card debt, and nursing home expenses, and my uncle sold off the house to pay off the bills. But creditors can't touch life insurance, and it isn't taxed, and that nest egg got me seriously started as an investor.
He wanted to be a writer once, so maybe I got that bug from him. He used to write wonderful jeremiads against banks and utility companies and, after he retired, politicians and the like. When he was young, he wrote some short stories. One was about a World War II veteran who was suffering from what today we would call post-traumatic stress syndrome. The guy blew his head off at the end, sort of an obvious ending, and Salinger did the same thing better, but his prose was just fine.
After he quit the fiction game for a salaryman's life of paperwork, my old man spent the rest of his life reading impossible stacks of books and magazines (Gourmet, Playboy, Esquire), with the TV on most of the time, from the moment he walked in the door until he went to bed. His other hobbies were outdoor activities without a lot of talking -- golf, fly-fishing and ice-fishing, hunting with bow, rifle and shotgun. If there was a gutted deer hanging in the garage in the fall, it was a good year.
He was the one who told me to learn about computers, there's money in it, and he logged me onto the Arpanet back in the 1970's with a terminal from work. It didn't have a screen -- it had a roll of paper. It connected through couplers that you screwed onto the telephone handset. The only people on the pre-Internet were military types and academics, sharing research and occasionally furtively playing text-based games and chatting. I caught the bug then. Networking. Talking. BBS's and Usenet newsgroups, eventually the Web when it was just a handful of sites. People looked at me funny when I talked about how it was going to change the world. Yeah, right.
But then came the 90s, and the Web explosion, and I put my money in tech before it was a bubble. And when I got out, it was partly dumb luck and partly the old man's voice telling me this was a little crazy, slow down, they'll skin you if they can. He knew about hardship. When he was growing up in the Great Depression, his parents shipped some of the kids off to an aunt because there wasn't enough food for all of them at home.
When I want to remember his voice, I read the few words he ever bothered to set down in his later life, mailed to me in that envelope from my uncle, painstakingly printed by hand, a blog before there were such things:
+Four weeks yesterday (27 April 86). Still seems unreal. Mass cards/ letters are trickling after the initial flood.
+My feelings are more in check except when answering a letter or note from a close friend. Better than letting it build up destructively, I guess. Still having trouble concentrating on the job, or the so-called important things (ie. income tax, bills, refinancing the house.)
+Worked in the garden yesterday for a while -- too hot. Planted some broccoli. Nabbed the boy next door to cut the grass -- explained the do's and don'ts. Trying to civilize this barbarian was probably one of my better ideas -- he won't kill the golden goose. Maybe!
+My favorite fishing rod and reel (the ultra lite) has disappeared -- no idea where to! Must replace!
+Got to get things sorted out.
12 May 86
+I never said this was a diary. It's a way of me communicating with myself, I guess. Mr. Y--- of C--- and Sons and I have struck a bargain of sorts. The head stone should be ready in about 6 weeks ($875). That, plus the funeral, took about $5,000, which is what I had figured. Another 20 years, it will be triple!
+I planted some Impatiens on the plot on Mother's day -- she always loved them -- it would be nice if someone could do it every year.
+I scared the shit out of E---- the other night, I suppose. I told her and B-- if it wasn't for you guys, the obvious solution to my grief, at first, was the obvious one. I think I meant it but when you're in deep distress, what the hell do you really know. I still cry every day! Oh God, how I miss her.
13 July 86
+All it takes sometimes is a little thing; a song that reminds me or a phrase in an old movie (e.g. "Chapter 2" when James Caan says "How dare she die -- I'd never do that to her"). Jesus!
It ends there. I am impressed by the economy of language. He had a need to say something, write it down, and he did for a while. Then he moved on.
But he kept on living, for years, in that old house, giving up fishing and hunting eventually, slowly losing his lungs to emphysema, driving down to his favorite Italian restaurant with an oxygen tank on a little wheeled cart, breaking his hips a couple of times, calling me with me updates on the upstate weather (136 inches of snow!). When I showed him the early Web, he was impressed, but he waved off my offers of a computer. By then, it was too complicated to learn something new. He spent most of his spare time gardening and running VCRs in every room to tape all his shows. He would have loved TiVo.
My parents' relatively early deaths, their setbacks, their stories of growing up when everyone was poor, the 1970s with their cultural chaos -- all these experiences have made me skeptical of progress, not quite believing the balance in my 401K or that the good jobs would last, that my health would hold out, that anything awaits any of us at the end of the line besides a shrinking circle of pain. It's the kind of outlook that leads my father, a proud atheist married to a daily church-going woman, to let a priest mumble by his deathbed, I suppose.
It was a few years ago that I got this stuff in the mail. My daughter was young, and I was inspired to write down some thoughts on my laptop:
I spent part of this night sitting up with a toddler who had been throwing up periodically for hours. She will never know her grandparents, though she has her grandfather's eyebrows, as do I, and a little of her grandmother's smile.
After she finally fell asleep, I sat for a while on my little bench in the darkness, listening to her breath, listening to mine, then to hers, then to mine, hers, mine, inhale, exhale, our mortal bodies sharing certain pieces of code, strands of DNA, mixed up and handed down through the generations, destined one day for cold stillness.
But not yet