A Writer’s Notebook: family history

This one rambles, but it’s an exercise and it’s rough, so bear with me.

I used to read books. I mean on paper, pages made of wood pulp pressed flat in huge machines, cut and stitched or glued together and then cut again, printed with ink and bound in cardstock covers. When I turned the pages I had to hold the last one down with my left thumb and the next one I kept pinned beneath my right index finger. For a long time I would fold the books in half, breaking the spine so cheaply glued pages would fall out in my lap; but after I destroyed my father’s thick copy of It, I learned — the hard way! — to never break a book again, so as an adult I carefully bend the covers to keep the spine always straight and clean.

My books had spines. That’s where the titles went, so I could see on my bookshelves which books were which.

I had bookshelves.

All of this remains true now, but I’ve been thinking lately about how much the technology of literature is changing — has changed, really, and is leaving me behind, because I still don’t own an e-reader and have no plans to buy one any time soon. I like my books. I don’t dislike e-books, but damn it, the printed book is a nearly perfect technology already, and I see no reason to give it up.

None of this is really what I’ve been thinking, though. What I’ve been thinking about lately is my mother’s father. I called him Papa, and because I was his first grandson, he kept the name proudly; we all pronounced it “paw-paw.” His birthname was Julius Charles, but no one knew him as anything but JC, Daddy to his children even when they’d grown, Papa to his grandkids and great-grandkids.

He was a short man, barely five-eight and slight of frame his whole life, his dark Wranglers in a small waist and his simple Western shirts in a medium if he wore them loose, which he rarely did. But my whole life, even when I outgrew him as a teenager, he always seemed taller than me, a pillar of quiet, self-assured manhood.

My mother still tells the story of how her younger brothers fought as teenagers so roughly in the small family room that my grandmother had no way to subdue them but to get the baseball bat, and still they raged on, two of them pounding and wrestling while my mother cried and my grandmother screamed with the bat raised in the air, looking for a place to swing: this all occurred at the time my Papa got home from his shift at the oil refinery, yet when he walked into the house he passed the maelstrom in the family room without a word or even a sideways glance. He headed to the kitchen, took a drink, passed back down the hall to his bedroom to change his work clothes. When he passed the second time, the whole family was arranged on the couch, the brothers quiet and the bat out of sight.

No one in the family feared him. They shut up and settled down because they respected him. Such was the nature of his authority.

When I was in grade school — this was maybe second grade, maybe the year before — I had to do that assignment all kids that age have to do: I had to interview my grandparents about their upbringing. It allows kids to connect to their own past, their own traditions, and, perhaps more importantly, it allowed us to bring our history books to life through the experiences of people we knew.

My father’s father is a walking genealogy book and a born storyteller, and I’d heard plenty about our past already while sitting on his knee. But for this assignment, I decided to interview my mother’s father, my Papa, a man of very few words and about whom, I realized at the time, I actually knew very little. I’d only recently discovered that my mother had grown up without electricity or indoor plumbing, an image I could only connect with the paintings of pioneers in my social studies textbooks or episodes of Little House on the Prairie. Surely we were much farther removed from frontier life than that! Yet if my own mother had grown up in such a “primitive” setting, what must life have been like for her parents?

So I asked my Papa for an interview, and we sat down together.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about. My Papa was not a boastful man, so the coolest things I know about him — that he wrestled alligators out of the backyard in Louisiana so my mother and uncles could play in the yard, for example — I heard from other people. But I remember one detail vividly: I read from my list of assigned questions, “What did you do for fun as a kid?”

My Papa said, “Oh, we would hitch up the horse and buggy and ride into town for church.”

That was it.

I can’t remember if I laughed out loud, though I certainly don’t imagine that I did. My Papa was a great man to laugh with, but he was not a man you laughed at. But I do know I found his remark fantastically silly, and I definitely said something like, “Papa, people don’t go to church for fun!”

But it was true. My Papa was a farm boy and, after his father died early, was the primary breadwinner for the family before he was a teenager. As he explained it to me, life was mostly work on the farm, so going into town on Sundays was as much a social opportunity as a spiritual one. It was the only time you really got to see your neighbors, it was a time for ice cream socials and games of dirt ball and sly meetings with young girls.

That and the horse-and-buggy they took into town had me convinced my Papa grew up, oh, not exactly during the Civil War, but certainly shortly afterward. And I suppose in Depression-era Louisiana, that wasn’t really that far off

His life was utterly foreign to me. And lately I’ve been wondering how utterly foreign my life might someday seem to future generations. Already my nieces and nephews are astounded that I ever had to blow into a cartridge to get my video games to work, that we used to own a tv that had no remote control, that we used to have to rent a VCR from the video store because we didn’t own one ourselves. (For that matter, they’re astounded at the idea of VCRs, or video stores.)

When I needed to do a school report, I looked things up in an encyclopedia. On paper. In the library.

My church group had lock-ins for Halloween and watched Children of the Corn in the fellowship hall.

For fun, I borrowed my mom’s minivan and hung out at the HEB, or my girlfriend’s house, or went careening down country roads and catching air on railroad crossings. (Sorry, Mom.)

I read books. In print, on paper. For fun.

I talked to my grandparents about life when they were kids, and that was more fun than I’d ever expected it to be.

I’d like to link you to a specific exercise, but if you read the piece I just wrote, you’ll recognize the exercise already: It’s the one we all did in first or second grade, writing about our grandparents and what life was like for them.

I actually was thinking about this recently — I’m reading Elmer Kelton’s The Time it Never Rained, a favorite of my dad’s, which is about the worst drought in Texas history, back in the 1950s. Except, that might soon be outdone by the drought Texas is currently suffering through, so I’ve been thinking about the historical echoes. And the history Kelton writes into the story has me thinking about “the way things used to be,” which got me thinking about my Papa.

And then I remembered that grade-school assignment.

Which is still a great one, so if you still have access to your grandparents, go interview them. Now.

You’ll love it.

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