Wednesday, January 28, 2009


It is not everyday that you tell the world that someone you love, in my case my mothers father, my grandfather, has died.  Bernard ("Benny") Wilondek is gone from the earth.  He died Monday afternoon, as my Mother attempted to fly home to see him one last time.  He had been ailing for some time.  All the same, he had only been in hospice for two or three days.  And it was a surprise to hear that he was gone.  It is still a surprise to know his funeral is in two days. His showing tomorrow.  My Grandfather has perhaps surprised me for the first time ever.

My Mom had called me on the 21st of January, the day I left for my trip, and just as I arrived at my destination, I saw her on my caller ID and panicked.  It was extremely difficult to control my voice as I answered the phone.  It was with great relief that I heard her surprise that I answered, as she had thought I was still in the air on the way to my destination.  But I accepted, with slowing heartbeat, her happy birthdays, and put my phone away to turn, as adults so constantly must, from the old concerns of their lineage.  I knew somewhere in my soul even then that there is no relief from my concern for my Grandfather's health.  Just the slowly dawning reality of his frailty, and its consequences on our lives.

When I returned on the 26th of January to Bloomington I was for some reason all day in the airports and airplanes filled with a strange anxiety to "just get back to normal".  Between my Grandfathers illness in December and the holidays, and then traveling out east, I was feeling out of sorts in terms of my normal life.  I was hungry for my normal routines.  Dying for that early morning sunrise on the way to a job.  Dying for a late evening of singing ballads at the school to which I have a key and endless quantities of solitude, privacy, and early twentieth century masonry to slam with my improvisations.  Dying for a book, and one dim compact florescent filling a corner of my tiny room, in our tiny house, the labored breathing of my friends in their rooms coming when I rise to fill my water glass.  These are the gifts of my life, not riches by far, but grace all the same that surprises me with its power to cause a happiness in my beloved home town.  I had been looking forward to making a grocery list, and was making one, while talking to a guy who works for me.  I finished up with my friend, and then turned with a (I realize) silly sense of pleasure to my paper and pencil.  The feeling might be described as:  what I am going to do that has nothing to do with anyone else.  Of some other description of self-centered narcissism.  So I began.  Romaine, an artichoke, some olives... alot of olives, actually...  then I realized that I hadn't heard my phone ring in a while.  I had made some calls, but why had nobody called me?  With dread I opened my phone and looked at the incoming calls list, and sure enough my mother had called me while I was flying on the plane, though at the time I couldn't tell that she had used her cell, since it just says the same "Mom and Dad" for their home and cell phones.  I called her, and she calmly, almost apologetically, gave me the news that her father had died.  She was in an airport, but she claimed to be o.k.  I have never really been in the business of knowing what to make of my mothers emotional state.  I spent so much of my childhood taking her stability for granted that I spent a good chunk of my adulthood after leaving home thinking women were aliens from mars (I already sort of regarded dudes that way) until I realized my mother was kind of unusual.  Nowadays I see most women as women, which is to say that I don't categorize their behavior as more, or less, emotional than men's, but rather see a difference, speaking broadly, in the way they approach communicating perspectives, problems, and solutions to me.  Trust me, I can seem dumber than a brick to my suave buddies, who are full of smooth talking advice how to deal with the girls.  I have to hand it to them:  in the short term, for the kill, their tactics are somewhat compelling.  I think I will leave it at that.  In general I have been massively lucky with the women who have appreciated me for who I am.  I have almost never had a truly terrible experience.  I guess I am going on like this because I wish there was some way I could be more supportive emotionally to my mom.  But I gotta tell you:  she is a smart, practical professional.  She's basically got it figured out before it even occurs to you to start reckoning.  And where she doesn't, its hard to imagine it just isn't too damn personal.  My only hope (imagine this) is that all this talk is just a cop out to confronting my mom about stuff I don't understand.   My only hope:  this is a cop out!  Wanna help?
So my mom told me my Grandpa is gone.  I tell her I am sorry, feeling enormously inadequate, and quite numb.  She asks me if I can come to the funeral.  It galls me a bit that she thinks it is possible I would miss such a thing.  I tell her of course, and we make plans to talk again the next day.  
I look down at my grocery list.  After scanning the vegetables I have written down, I just stick it in my pocket, with a pen, walk out of my room and over to my housemate/ landlord Robert, and ask if he wants anything from the store.  Robert is ninety, so the answer is almost always calculated to relieve him of some pressing future engagement with his automobile (yeah, he drives).  It is often my intention to keep him out of his car as well.  It is also fun to shop for someone so fastidious.  He wants, not a hand of bananas, but eight bananas.  I had never counted bananas till my met Robert.  Or considered tapioca anything but a disgusting relative of preschool snack food.  Seeing someone who probably can't smell much, smack his lips over generic Ensure (chocolate flavored) over crumbled store brand cookies, after he takes his enormously expensive (Indiana grown) supplements one by one, with each bite of his food while standing...  there really is nothing in this world like Robert.  Every day with him is an enormous pleasure.  So I asked him if he wants anything, and he says, "Yes.  You mentioned earlier that you might go, so I made a list, if you don't mind."  I hadn't remembered telling him I was going to the store, but this only adds to my amusement, so I take the list from him, accept his gratitude, and then stop.  And realize.  I should tell Robert now.  
"Robert...," I say.
"Yes," he says.
"I don't expect to talk with you at length about this just now, but I should tell you.  My mom just called, and as you know my Grandfather has been very sick.  He died this afternoon." I look at Robert knowing he would never ask himself or me why I look so ambivalent, or would worry about bothering him.  We have a lot in common.
"I'm very, very sorry to hear that Andy.  How are you?" he says.  He was a counselor for years, and has a tone of voice that is marvelously attuned to the listeners sense of being heard.  For as grouchily as ninety year old can desire things his way, human need turns his soul on a dime.  
I can tell him this:  "I don't know."
Robert nods.  Sighs.  He is thinking, I think, of his late wife Cynthia.  She was a gift to him in life, and I think has been invaluable to his slow move toward death.  He lives like a school boy with a dunce cap in the ecstasy of Cynthia's one room school house of life.  Like any man, he failed her.  Spent his life with her, and caused her therefore to waste her endless love and talent on his foolish worry.  Then, in her late seventies she got Cancer and died.  And the least capable, least loving, least valuable to their friends and community, and somewhat less popular parent, continued, to his surprise, to live in her memory, blowing her spark alive in people like me, who never met her, but sometimes wonder if she doesn't live, so strong is her husbands regard, beyond sex, beyond attachment, beyond the failure of even pretending to be Cynthia's companion.  
But Robert looks into the past briefly then meets my eyes.  "I was thinking just now of how I cannot recall what my mother did between my fathers death and her own.  There were about five years, you know.  Of course I know she was at the home her church had established.  She had been helping there all her life.  It was a marvelous place for her... she knew it top to bottom.  But I don't remember her there.  Strange."   His mother was a schoolteacher, and taught him at home as much as he learned from school.  He had been a sickly, and somewhat lame boy, due to a weak constitution or a series of unfortunate childhood accidents.  But his parents clearly gave him an immense sense of right and wrong, and he went on to be a conscientious objector in World War Two.  He grabbed my arm, and looked up at me with the love that only the best friends or family can offer.  The look on his face made words unnecessary, and he knew the look on mine as well.  I placed my hand on his hand, and gently squeezed.  "So... tapioca, it's not on your list."  He had thought it would be too much to carry, given the other two items.  
"So good of you to ask."  
"Just imagining your God damned face while you eat it, Robert."  I'm not exactly his junior. We're basically friends.  "Weirdos," says David, his son.

Yeah. My Grandpa and I, were most definitely not weirdos.  What category could I be put in that my Grandfather was in.  Hmm...  let's see.  Veteran?  No.  Cop?  No.  Mainline Catholic? No.  Child of immigrants (or extracted from a particular country instead of 4)?  No.  I could go on.  Except that this exercise speaks to the wrong manner of looking at the two of us.  For the truth is that a great deal of what I have been told by my family, mentors, and friends all my life, looks an awful lot like the place and person of my Grandfather.  Don't get me wrong, there is a serious discrepancy between the life 0f my Grandfather, and my life.  Lots and lots that could be pointed to as proving a lack of relation.  However....   what I spent a great deal of my young adulthood taking for granted as a kind of bumptious naivety in my Gramps, it turns out, at least for me, to be a gutteral understanding of what it means to be a person, an American, live a spiritual life, love a woman.  They are things that are easy to confuse in post war America as mere ideals, rooted perhaps, in a sort of white men take all triumphalism.  Here's the rub, though. As I aged, I could hear the appetites and hunger of the souls all around me wanting what their forebrains couldn't allow them.  I heard stories of the actual home life of my mother, which had previously been completely overshadowed by her harrowing split from her parents over how she would practice her religion (or more to the point, whether she would visit my father and his Lutheran Church, and all that might entail).  Since I left home, when my mom and I visit and speak of her childhood I have been surprised by her consistent lack of protest about any aspect of being beneath her parents roof, save the very end of her time at home.  While she would probably always be scarred by the split with her parents (and religion), her continence smoothed to an inquiry of wonder when asked about childhood and her place in her family, and town and church as a girl.  "I had a happy childhood,"  Mom has told me many times.  While some of that is doubtless the practical professional with better things to do than dig bones meant to be buried;  as time has passed, and other families, other cultures, other sorts of expectations and kinds of approaches have wound their way into my knowing, when in my parents hometown of Kendalville, and when accepted into the embrace of the four other progeny of my Grandparents, slowly a kind of strange notion has dawned on me:  my Grandfather has meant what he has said for most of his life.  Be it about God, or the Apollo trip to the moon, or about Lutheran's, or his daughters boyfriends, Grandpa laid out his feeling, and meant it.  The people about him knew where he stood.  His four daughters and one son knew how he felt without asking (to a great extent).  And while there is a great deal my Grandfather did not know about, what he did know he let you in on.  He told my parents once, at the Grand Canyon, "Why God just took his finger and went like this, " dipping his finger through an imaginary Colorodo river.  It is my suspicion that my parents and him were at the lip of the Canyon at the time.  My father probably wouldn't have quipped, "Yeah, for a few billion years, he probably did."    Kinda reminds me of Chevy Chase doing a few short deep knee bends at the Canyon's edge, in the movie Vacation, then suggesting it was time to go.  My point is not to aggrandize my Grandfathers ways.  I could never be like him in those ways.  But there is a basic warm embrace of human contact, a basic straightforwardness, and open eyed affection that seems to flow from him and his wife and children, just a deep human loveliness in the pleasure he took from his place and town.  These are not cool things.  These are not things you see people build monuments to.  But these are things nonetheless that make life worth living (not so much for one self, but among others).  So I suppose I saw a lot more of that this last decade when with my Grandpa.
When living my life here, even in liberal Bloomington, it always seems such a precious thing to get a much needed hug from a friend.  Such a precious thing to see the human hunger of desire in the eyes of another to know what is on your mind.  It happens, but not so often.  We live lives lit by the fire of consequence that others imagine our actions to represent.  And within that constraint, (and by it) we come to define our expectations, and honest appraisals.  Not often do we look in the mirror, despite it all, and say, "Hey there Andracious buddy boy!"  Unless we have written it out on order from our therapist, guru, or self help publication.  Do we speak with a lilting lightheartedness to our loved ones, dance around the living room as if it were in itself in all its lack of particulars The Hard Rock Cafe (Kendalville, Indiana).  No we're more likely to go to the Hard Rock Cafe in search of a something our doctors have to prescribe for us anyways.  
A girl said to me once, while I was setting a table at an elderly home (I was working there, not yet old enough to be admitted):  "Do you eat dinner around a kitchen table at home with your family?"  I told her yes, and wondered at that moment and always, what it was, the way I laid a fork down, or the way I couldn't hide the pleasure that this domestic chore brought me as it reminded me of the oldest habit of any family that lives together:  despite regrets, or hurts, crimes or punishments, despite guilt or innocence they sit together don't they?  Families eat together right?  My Grandfather would have said, "Of course."  
That girl, who haunted me in the flesh, and will haunt me until I die, would not of said that. She ate her dinner every night on a couch, or in her room alone.  Had you said to her, "You know the people who sometimes live under your roof are your family in this world," she would have answered in the affirmative without irony or argument.  She thought I was the oddity.  And for a moment, let me tell you, I had to agree.  Every night, my parents and I enacted a physical tribute to certain platitudes about family and culture.  It seems like dinner.  But that wasn't what that girl was asking about.  And even then, as a seventeen year old kid, I knew that.

So that was the sad thing about my Grandfather passing away.  His presence was an embodiment of  the middle American dream.  He wasn't rich, or pretentious.  He wasn't perfect and certainly didn't have it all figured out.  But he lived in a small town, and loved his wife and kids, and convinced a passel of Priests that he might be a saint.  And he very well might.  One never knows.  Except that's just it...  I'd know if my Grandfather were no saint.  I haven't a clue if he is, but one things for sure, you probably wouldn't rule him out.

So Bernard.  See you on the 'morrow.  And thanks.  I know exactly what kind of Grandpa I'd like to be.  And that is due to you and you alone.



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