When your father dies and you start to go through some of his stuff you find things that jump out at you as being emblematic of exactly who he was.
Might be tools, cars, engines, or photography gear or a million other things that you recognize because you saw your father using/researching or otherwise working with them.
Sometimes your kids come across old pictures and ask who is that hanging off the side of a mountain and then you smile when they tell you they don’t believe it is grandpa.
It is bittersweet to realize they don’t remember the man who was physically able and capable of doing all sorts of things.
They recognize the guy who would sit at the computer and make lists. They recognize the filer and organizer and if you describe the planner they can see that too.
But some of the other things that made dad/grandpa who he was are a mystery and that is ok, we all have lives that began before we became parents and aspects that started afterwards but might not have involved the kids.
I know it from firsthand experience and given all that has transpired it made me think about some other family secrets where I laughingly wonder if DNA testing would help.
Who Was He?
Dad’s little brother died at 49, courtesy of complications from AIDS.
I think I was 20 when I found out he was HIV+ which means it was at the tail end of the eighties when we all thought of it at as a death sentence.
It wasn’t a question of if, but when and I sometimes wonder if I should have said more or tried to have conversations with dad and my grandfather about it.
My best guess is neither would have wanted to really speak with me about their feelings but would have gladly listened to me because they would have seen protecting me as their role.
I understand that and approach many things in a similar fashion, but not entirely.
Anyway, my uncle made a point to connect with me and he gave me an open invitation to visit him in San Francisco along with a key to his apartment.
I drove from LA to San Francisco more than a few times during college to go visit and hang out with him.
During one of my visits he told me he married a girl from New Zealand so that she could gain citizenship.
I asked him to share some details about her and wanted to know what happened to her. He laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
It was sometime in the early 70s and he hadn’t stayed in touch. I asked him if they had lived together and whether they had been traditional.
He told me that was a typical question for a guy in his twenties and then reminded me he was gay and not interested.
I tried to remember more details the other day about that conversation.
Tried to remember a bunch of other things that all came in context of family memories and events as he recalled them as opposed to dad and grandpa.
But we’re about 28 years passed those days and some of what I found important or interesting has changed.
Sometimes I wonder if I took one of those DNA testing kits if I would find out that I have some first cousins living around the states or maybe back in New Zealand.
Maybe I wouldn’t disc0ver any such thing, who knows.
One of the things that sticks out from that time is sitting in a bar with my uncle and his pointing out that I was in a gay bar and that it wasn’t particularly different than any other bar I had been in.
I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, but I remember the look and the moment. It was my a combination of my dad, my grandfather but mostly my uncle.
Strange to think they are all gone now.
I am told my paternal great grandfather had blonde hair and blue eyes. The eyes I remember, but his hair was white by the time I met him.
He was six feet tall, but grandpa wasn’t close.
My uncle was six feet tall too but built more like a rail. Dad was 5’10 and broad, as am I.
Grandpa and dad had blue eyes like my great-grandfather, but my uncle had brown eyes.
Why’d You Marry Him?
I am sitting in row 26B on a plane leaving JFK and grateful there are only two seats, mine and 26A on this particular flight.
There is a older brunette sitting next to me who looks less than happy to be on the plane.
Looking backwards I laugh because she probably was somewhere between 45-50 which is to say, about my age now, but back then she was older.
We’re in a time in which no one has smartphones and there are no personal entertainment centers on the back of the seats so we read magazines and curse because whatever free movie we might have seen isn’t available due to technical issues.
Somewhere in between drink service and turbulence she asks if we can talk because she once had a bad flight.
I say sure and we do the usual exchange of information about who we are and why we are traveling.
Eventually the carts start running again and she downs a few drinks and when her lips get looser tells me to be careful about getting married.
I don’t know why she is telling me this but figure I have nothing but time and I am tired of reading about the goofy crap in the Skymall magazine.
You know the one that offers 100,000 interesting products that you expect to see in a television commercial for RONCO or something like that.
So she tells me about her guy and how nice he once was but no longer is because their interests aren’t quite the same anymore and they don’t like to go to sleep/wake up at the same time.
After she fills my ears with more details than I need about a man I’ll never meet she asks me what I think.
“You just told me you like to go out and he never does. You said he is awkward and goofy but you didn’t answer a big question.”
“What is that?”
“Why’d you marry him? Didn’t you know this before?”
“I was stupid.”
Who We Were
I am knee deep in boxes in my garage going through things to keep and things to give away.
Somewhere in here are some boxes that have followed me around since I was about 24.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I died and people went through those boxes because I don’t remember exactly what is in them.
I don’t expect you’ll find anything incriminating but you might find an old essay or two and some college notebooks/textbooks.
You might find a few other odds and ends that once were important or at least important enough that I didn’t want to throw them out or give them away immediately.
Things that I intended to deal with but ran out of time and they somehow managed through dumb luck to just hang around.
If they were found now people might think they represented something important not knowing they really symbolize fatigue with packing and making decisions.
I wonder if the woman my uncle married is still alive and what she is doing now. Did she ever get remarried and if so, did she have to get a divorce?
If she did, how did she go about it? Was it simple or difficult? Did she travel by plane and tell some stranger it was stupid to marry my uncle because the divorce made getting married complicated?
Don’t think I’ll ever know, so I suppose I’ll just have to live with not knowing or make up a story. That could be more fun and more interesting, but maybe not.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.