Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Good Man Project - Where For Art Thou Grandpa?

His name was Benson. I can remember his smell, a combination of cigarette smoke and Old Spice. I gravitated to him like a helpless floating particle, unable to understand why he was like candy. I couldn't resist him.  His chair, the light beige recliner, sat within two feet of the front door in their tiny shotgun house. I think the door might have actually hit the chair upon opening.

We didn't get to visit "this side of the family" very often.  It wasn't like my dad's family, where we were always having them over or I was constantly begging to spend the night with my older cousins Debbie and Betty Sue or my Aunt Sarah. These people were once, twice, maybe four times per year, as I recall.  When my mom's side of the family got together, it was for Christmas, a special occasion or somebody had died.

My mom had two sisters close to the same age and two brothers, born much later. They grew up in this impoverished yet important dwelling behind the school yard on the south side of Oklahoma City. My mother's childhood memories of sharing a bed with her two sisters, having family over to play musical instruments every weekend or her younger brothers sleeping in the kitchen because they didn't have a room was one of the many things I learned by reading her journals after her death.

There was so much I didn't know.

What I did know was that I loved this man who kept an ashtray on the side of his recliner because he couldn't be without a cigarette for more than a few minutes. When we were allowed to make one of our semi occasional, i.e. rare sojourns to their home, it seemed to be something my dad faced with dread, consternation and a healthy dose of passive aggression. I had the sense we were to be there for the appearance, the gift exchange, the formalities, then we were to vamoose, evaporate like yesterdays rain. 

When the whole family was together, there was Grandma (not much to say about her, aloof, distant, never really knew her), Grandpa and gay Uncle Bob who lived in the back room addition which was built on many years later. The nuances and ultimate falling out with Uncle Bob is a post all unto its own; however suffice it to say, the man could make a mean pie crust.

The other uncle never had children and the two sisters each had two boys so I was the one and only precious baby girl grandchild. I often wonder if this is why grandpa took pity on me and acquiesced to my insatiable need to be near him or if I was just too darn cute and persistent to allow him to put me down.  I want to think he wanted me as much as I wanted him.

He had  large, rough hands for a man with such a diminutive stature. He was a machinest but preferred music above all else. He allowed me to be the pouty, doleful girl I was and I felt safe with him. I remember the photo above. I remember my dress, the doll I was holding, the worn, leather briefcase beside his chair and the black Mary Jane shoes which were my absolute favorites. I also recall the feeling that I didn't want my picture taken ergo the signature sullen face. He never smiled in pictures, my mom never smiled and I didn't either. Why didn't we smile?

Can somebody please fill in these blanks for me?  Aunt Donna? Uncle Benny? I want to know more about the man who in the words of Dan Fogelberg was a "quiet man of music, denied a simpler fate".

As part of my series on good men, my grandpa immediately comes to mind. He died when I was 10. This gentle man was taken from me before I realized how much I needed him. I can't help but wax philosophically. Would I have turned to him for advice during those cluttered, demoralizing, baffling years? Would he have been able to usher me through the substandard choices or circumvented the chaos and shown me the essence of the male archetype I craved? 

Hard to say.

Not sure I want to know. But I would like to know why we were not allowed to visit often enough for me to cherish this man.

My other grandpa died when my dad was only 13. My Granny Mac never remarried. This man, Benson, was the only shot I had at a Grandpa. His life was cut short due to heart disease and lifestyle. One cannot inhale tobacco to that degree and escape its wrath.  He was a good man. I don't think anyone else in that teeny, tiny house wanted to deal with me and my attitude. On some ethereal level, he got me. He didn't mind holding me, loving me and allowing me to adore him. He was humble, used to working hard to support his family but stepping aside to let them have the spotlight. When I was with him, he was the light of my world and I made him smile in a world where smiles were not easily given.

When someone in my family passes, we honor them with the words and music which carry meaning for them. Some might call it cr-A-zy or unconventional at best but that's what we do.  Dad had Sinatra, Mom had Van Morrison and a spanish guitarist. My brother had Pink Floyd and my Grandpa Benson had Dan Fogelberg. My eldest brother and a friend of his played their guitars and sang to him.....

The Leader of the Band is tired
And his eyes are growing old,
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt
to imitate the man.
I'm just a living legacy
to the Leader of the Band.

His song will forever be in my soul and his blood courses through my veins to remind me he was a good man and I am his legacy.

6 comments:

  1. Awww great memories and a great pic

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  2. Smoke and Old Spice, I know that smell. I have never seen a childhood photo of you. I love this one. I think I love Benson too. He had his gay son live with him, the only add-on that small house got. He must have loved him at a time when many parents stopped doing so. Good man.

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  3. Nicholas MacdonaldMarch 23, 2010 at 10:11 PM

    Youre girls look so much like you, it's scary!

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  4. I always think you must cry so much writing these. I know I would. I write journals for the kids to read, too. Boy aren't they going to be surprised! P.S. I miss your old background.

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  5. What a sweet tribute to your grandfather. I hope you find the answers you seek.

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  6. That is the sweetest tradition I've ever heard of, and a beautiful post. :')

    And that smiley is me wiping a tear out of my eye, just to be clear. ;)

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