Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Old Stories New

I've heard my brother say more than once that years ago he had intentionally sat down with my grandpa, tape recorder in hand, and interviewed him about his early years and our family roots. The tape was subsequently lost in the shuffle of multiple moves and I never heard it. Until today. Jonathan came in from an afternoon out with a strange look on his face. Guess what I found? We popped it in an old player and sat back to listen. It was eerie to hear his good-natured voice from years ago, before the stroke that changed him so dramatically and those last difficult months before he died. Thus was the Grandpa of my childhood: easy-going, always amused and a little distant, like he was resigned to being a bit bored with the goings-on around him, contentedly eyeing some distant horizon. An inventor, an artist and self-made man, he must have always been thinking, wondering, working things out. So here he was, game to the questions and telling his story so matter-of-factly. "Hello, my name is Albert Scott..." We learned that his oldest sister, the pretty Miriam Ruth, died at age 20, not of consumption but of a thyroid disease, wasting away suddenly within six months and that had plunged my great grandfather into a deep depression just as the world was entering its. Grandpa had worked beside his father in the sign-painting business for years. Their place was located literally blocks from where we were sitting listening to his voice tell about it. His older brother, my great Uncle Byron, was a boxer during the Depression, even working the carnival at one point taking on "comers". We heard how Grandpa had actually enjoyed boot camp, that it was "kinda fun" because he was "strong and light on my feet". He'd gotten his pilot's license as a young man out of casual curiousity but had better things to do than fly planes which he admitted was "kind of boring". He wanted to tell about his grandparents, his (great?) Grandpa Flint, a successful business man who had bought abandoned ships out of the SF Bay during the Gold Rush for pennies on the dollar. His great grandmother, who was a Tyler, related somehow to the tenth US President of that name. It was a relatively short tape, thirty minutes all told but full of intriguing threads leading off into the mist of forgotten stories. It made me realize how much is lost when an ancestor crosses over. We take too much for granted and don't realize how rare the familiar things around us are. When Laurie Andersen whispers in her song "When my father died it was like a whole library had burned down. World without end remember me," I understand.

Photo: President John Tyler, 1845 by Brady