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  • Fragment One: My Father’s Father

    It’s funny to call someone I never knew Grandfather.
    My father’s father sounds better.

    To find his story I piece together what I know and what I wonder. Snippets my father shared—not many, not much, but something. Letters my father wrote home during World War II and someone saved—we found them bundled in his desk after he died. My father’s father’s store ledger we found in my father’s desk. Photographs down deep in that desk.

    I hear my father’s voice, the historian’s voice, whisper about fact about point of view about truth.

    That desk held stories. He never threw anything away. If I had only known. But this is not his story, nor history.

    This is what I know:

    His father (my father’s father’s father), a politician-businessman, was a character out of a Boss Tweed play. His community demanded his removal from office. Something unsavory, the reek of corruption. No one ever told me this story—I found it while checking dates.

    Shocking. But, well... The family back in Ireland had something to do with race horses. Everyone was selling something. Even my upstanding though wrong-side-of-the-tracks father made money by selling selling selling, at his hoity-toity college, charging the rich, drunk fraternity boys a ransom for hotdogs at halftime, and then during the war, as a bookie between battles.

    My father’s father inherited his father’s general mercantile in their small upstate New York mill town and was a shopkeeper until one day, after the Crash of 1929, he handed out all the food and dry goods to his needy neighbors, cleared the shelves and shut the door behind him. After that he worked in the local clothespin factory. Then died while my father, the oldest of five, was away at war.

    This is what I wonder:
    How it would feel to have a father the people of the towns all around wanted thrown out of office? Would you make yourself into the best-loved guy in town?

    How would it feel to be that affable Irish-American of the kind you imagine tending bar, the one holding and swapping the stories of the town? The one who took care of people, asked how their invalid aunts were doing, their wayward children? His store was the center of things; everyone gathered there to gossip and share news, to play checkers and warm themselves by the woodstove, to ask for help. His ledgers don’t show many sales any given day week month year.

    How would it feel to move from the warm chat around the pickle barrel in the middle of that store—your store--to the incessant clamor and monotony of a factory? A clothespin factory? How would it feel to lose your footing? To go to work for The Man. Without a union. Would memories of your own father pin you down?

    What was it like to be the community’s heart and then head home in the evening, shuttering into someone silent and remote? My father’s letters from the war sign off by reaching for his father’s love. And then his father died. Just like that. And there are no more letters.

    This is what I know:
    My father’s father owned the first automobile in that mill town. He was proud of it, peacock proud. Nevertheless he sent my child-father out with his little red wagon, to deliver groceries within the tightly clustered village. My child-father was afraid of things as he made his rounds—a certain dog, and, I think, a certain priest, though he never said that. My child-father was five years old.

    My father’s father’s was the first “mixed marriage” in the family—my grandmother’s family being from the north of Ireland, the Presbyterian North. No one ever spoke of her Protestantism. Not even she, though she never converted to Catholicism.

    This is what I imagine:
    It must have been devastating when his children were quarantined in the house for a full year—my father missing first grade—when his two-year-old and four-year-old daughters contracted polio, one crippled, one scarred. The health authorities placed an X on the front door, and my six-year-old father, untouched by the disease, was not allowed to venture past the yard. For a whole year.

    People must have stayed away, even from the store. Perhaps that was what did it in, did him in.

    This is what I know:

    One of my brothers has a Buddhist heart and sells cars. Used ones. Goes out of his way for his clients. Is caring and trustworthy. Well loved.

    Is close to his family.

    One of my brothers has the gift of the gab and is a political director for a huge union. When he speaks, silver water falls from his mouth. His words touch the heart and move the spirit--for the good. Is caring and trustworthy. Well loved.

    Is close to his family.

    This is what I wonder:
    Is this the arc of an immigrant family history playing out, of evolution writ small in the selling and talking, talking and selling? Father to son to father to son to father to son?

    What stories would my father’s father and his father tell my brothers and my brother’s sons?
    About work and community and family and love? About then? About now?
    What stories would my brothers and my brother's sons tell? And their sons?
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