Modern Love: An echo through the generations

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 3:02pm

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Courtesy of Hannah Brauer

There’s a 500-page book about my grandfather’s life sitting on my shelf.

“Book” might be an understatement. He titled it “memoir novel,” but “textbook” might be more accurate, due to its size. I’ve had my copy for over a decade and so far, it’s only been used for pressing leaves and four-leaf clovers. 

Grandpa passed away in May 2018. We weren’t very close — either the cause or effect of neglecting his memoir — which is why I didn’t know what to say while standing next to his bed in the hospital. I felt like I should come up with a long monologue about our relationship, but the words weren’t there.

Finally, I said, “I’m sorry I never read your book. I promise I will one day.” We sat in silence with my hand resting on his stomach. After a few minutes, his left eye fluttered open. 

I’d forgotten Grandpa had blue eyes. 

As I stared, I imagined him conversing with the thousands of people he met during his life; he was suddenly the blue-eyed boy supporting his family in the South by selling boiled peanuts on the street, the high school prom king and football quarterback, the husband trying to navigate his two marriages. 

I’d never been this close to his face before. His eyelid was now only half-open, just enough to peek at who was touching him. It fell closed a few seconds later, and I wondered if my image even registered in his mind. 

When Grandpa’s memoir, “Boiled Peanuts and Buckeyes,” was published in 2006, he paid for our entire family to visit his hometown and attend his book-launch event. I have a photo of him standing up and giving a speech, though I don’t remember what he said. Strangers walked up to his table afterward to have their copies signed. It was odd watching Grandpa interact with people who barely knew him but held his entire life in their hands.

He gave each of his grandchildren their own signed copy, as if to say, “Here’s my life, read it as you wish.”

After Grandpa’s death, I re-read the note: 

When you get older or maybe even now, you may enjoy reading about your mother’s family. The book also will come in handy if you need to prepare a family tree for one of your classes. I wish you a long and happy life.

Love, Grandpa Holland

It was strange to see his full name, Lee Eudon Holland, printed on the cover of the book but Love, Grandpa Holland signed inside. The title “Grandpa” seemed to give me a special license, a backstage pass to the information with an insider’s perspective. 

The truth was, the most I’d read of his book was the citation of my name in the index. I was mentioned once at the very end, a single name in a long list of grandchildren. His entire life as Grandpa Holland was a mere epilogue to his story.

Grandpa loved stories. He dreamt that one day I would write a memoir of my own, knowing that I’ve been a writer since I was young. On multiple occasions, he suggested putting me in contact with local authors he knew, though I never followed up on his offers. Later, he mailed me his copy of “Your Life as Story,” a how-to guide for memoir writers. I didn’t read it and realized I forgot to thank him. 

When I was a junior in high school, Grandpa emailed me after we hadn’t seen each other in a while. 

Since I don’t see you very often, I would like for you to share some of the things that happen in your life that have a lot of meaning to you, he wrote. Just a few lines once a week or so ... 

He suggested he would send some excerpts from his memoir in return.

I emailed him a response of equal length about my own life and my thoughts about becoming a writer. He never replied, which I assumed was either because he was too busy or changed his mind. Even when I saw him in person for holidays, we never spoke of the email.

After he died, I searched for his name in my inbox and discovered he had actually sent me a dozen emails that were lost in my spam folder. They were spread out over a few years; congratulating me on a college scholarship, wishing me luck before I went skydiving, detailing how he met my grandma. He never knew if I read them.

I felt more guilty than I had in my entire life. Shame pressed on my chest and weighed as much as the book itself — three and a half pounds, actually, according to my bathroom scale.

If I read his messages earlier, I would’ve known that Grandpa talked about his favorite song, “In the Pines,” a lot. Everyone at the funeral seemed to know it. In the pines, in the pines / Where the sun don't ever shine ... 

My dad spent the last few days trying to find the original version to play over the speakers at the visitation, but like most traditional folk songs, “In the Pines” has been shaped and remade as it was passed down through the generations. There’s no official author, lyrics or tune; its story is never finished, but rather echoed. 

I learned the song on the ukulele and played it with my family after the visitation as a tribute, a way for me to connect with him in a way I couldn’t when he was alive.

Grandpa didn’t open his eyes again after he looked up at me in the hospital. I was the last person he saw. I was there for his last breath, too: a gulping, life-culminating gasp, like nothing I’d seen before. I didn’t understand why I deserved to be there at the end of his life, when I was only mentioned in his memoir once. 

But I don’t live in his memoir; I live in the pines. I am a folk song, and I carry on his legacy of storytelling by writing about my life — just as he wrote about his. 

I thought of him when deciding on my senior thesis project for my creative writing degree: a collection of memoir pieces, using “Boiled Peanuts and Buckeyes” as a textbook. By the end of the year, I will have read the entire book cover to cover, picking out four-leaf clovers along the way.

Though our connection happened later than expected, I feel closer to Grandpa now than I did while he was alive. And I’m hoping that, in reading his stories, my journey as a writer can echo his own.

I wish you a long and happy life.

Love, Grandpa Holland

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