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Monday, April 03, 2006

Another Loss

On March 31st my grandfather passed away. It is a very sad loss but at 90 no real shock. Less than 6 months back my uncle, his youngest son, died. Ironically, March 31 was my uncle's birthday. What no doubt was already going to be a heartwrenching day for my grandmother, mother and other uncle was made all the worse by the loss of my grandfather.

He was a towering man, my grandpa, at a little over 6 feet tall I remember always having to crane my neck to look up to him... but look up I did. He was often stern and was elusive; at work most of the time during our visits to my grandparents as a child. But he could be spectacularly funny. One of his favorite games was attempting to make my sister and I laugh so hard at the dinner table milk would spit out our little noses. He succeeded several times. I have very vivid memories of he, my uncles and my mom, getting together and cracking jokes over the old slides at Christmas time. We'd laugh until we had to hold our sides.

But what was also a part of my grandfather's life was his enormous disappointment. He was constantly trying to find a way not to do it. Not that he turned to God or prayer or positive thinking or anything like that. It was almost as if his disappointment in his life was involuntary, an inherited family trait there was no shaking off. And it may have been. His own mother was stern and no fan of critical thinking. My grandpa spent his life as a professor of international relations, at San Francisco State, U.C. Berkeley and retiring finally from U.S.C. Many were, but his mother was not amoung them, impressed by his accomplishments.

My grandmother recalls too a time when he was being considered as Secretary of State for Robert Kennedy. His specialty was the Middle East and it was nothing but a huge regret that I was unable to pick his brain in the past few years about what he knew. He made several trips to Saudi Arabia to meet with shieks in his research at U.S.C. His work was mysterious and I believe he liked it that way. But my sister and I would attempt to put the pieces together to what he was working on during our summer visits when we were old enough to help. Helping consisted of cutting out articles he had circled in various newspapers from around the world and pasting them with rubber cement on 3x5 cards that my grandma would then organize. British papers, I remember, were like crepe paper and you darn't put too much rubber cement on them or you'd smear the print on the other side.

In these past 4 or 5 years he struggled with dementia. For a man who spent his life making his living with his mind it was a critical, nasty blow to lose it. It was to him almost like the world was saying "you're work is nothing". I know he already felt that way having not garnered the kind of respect and notariety for his work at U.S.C. that he thought, and very likely did, deserve. He was a first user of the Internet when computers were still gigantic noisy machines spinning away in cool rooms in basements. I remember a trip to see them as a kid, years before field trips to Berkeley's computer lab and 'pictures' of bunny images programmed into giant computers and spit out by dot matrix printers. He was probably 20 years before his time.

I'd like to think that I learned alot from my grandpa. But that would be sentimentalizing and not true. I did learn something about the enormous, destructive power of disappointment. His alone stunted the growth of our entire family in so many ways and it was not until becoming a mother myself did I finally sorted it all out. But it was a heavy armor to wear for him and I think he felt, until very, very late, unable to shake it and appreciate people just for who they were.

He was disappointed in his career. And he was disappointed in his children. I see in each of them how they dealt with it. My Uncle Tom just checked out. My Uncle Ty alternated between checking out and fighting. My mother, herself, decided to not be disappointed in anything and for the most part she has been successful. I too as a teen and a young woman adopted a stance of 'no regrets' which is very satisfying in a way but eventually you find that if there is not a shred of regret then learning is sacrificed too. I have now begun to come to term with regrets and disappointments of my own career. It is not easy certainly but my goal is primarily not to inflict it upon my children.

It can't have been easy to bear children after a catastrophic World War, nor to raise them in an inevitably changing world, nor for that matter to have grown up in the midst of the Depression. My grandfather's life spanned almost all the major changes of the 20th century. I can't imagine how you go from being an adolescent living on a farm to being a university professor and being one of the first on the Internet. It is almost too much to fathom, the changes that he and my grandmother have experienced. Considering how little the world changed for so long before he hit the earth and how much it changed whilst he was here, he did pretty darned well.

I will always remember rolling on his belly and him laughing me off. He strived so hard to make something of himself and at times it seemed as if the right people didn't notice. His life though is proof to me that I was loved, that learning is important and that disappointment is not. I hope that now he can remember the joy of laughing a little adoring girl off his belly too.

3 comments:

demondoll said...

I am so sorry about your Grandpa.

Arianna said...

Condolences, yella. Condolences.

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