Been a while, hasn’t it? Normally I don’t have this good an excuse. I’ve been knocked off the rails since December, it feels like. I’m going to try to come back over the next few months. Going to Portland will be interestingly discombobulating. In the best way.
My Grandfather died a couple of weeks ago. Almost three weeks now, I think. Time blurs. After a relatively short illness; it seems, rather, as though that after he’d outlived two magnificent ladies he decided that was a good run of things. In retrospect, maybe I should have seen that coming. Maybe I did see that coming. I had the feeling he wouldn’t live to see this spring. I slammed together of a scrapbook of this lovely new-old house he enabled me to buy, so he could at least see it in pictures if not in person. I think it got there in time. Everyone else loved it, anyway.
So, when I was three or so, my mother fled across the country from her soon to be ex-husband, my biological father, for a number of very good reasons that may or may not have to do with why I don’t drink very often at all (one, maybe two drinks, maybe once a month, maybe less than that) and why I have never touched drugs in my life except what my doctor prescribes. Sometimes not even then. Anyway, we moved in with her parents, my grandparents, and lived in the basement apartment of their townhouse for a while, and then in other places around town but never more than a few miles or a couple metro stops from their house. We eventually settled about a mile ish, one metro stop, away. I ended up in the same bedroom that I’d occupied when we briefly stayed at that place the first time, after moving into town. Of all things, I recognized it because I’d been very nastily sick in the black and white tiled bathroom. The things we remember.
Mom tried the marriage thing a second time, but that didn’t work out too well either, and for most of my childhood until my Grandmother died when I was 18, the day before my high school graduation, my grandparents helped raise me. I spent weekends at their place, holidays, walked there after school and was fed macaroni and cheese or leftovers or sandwiches while I watched Sesame Street, Square One, PBS, old BBC comedies. Ballet. Grandma would give me her old mysteries to read, or Grandpa would bring back books from his travels. He was quite an important man at the World Bank, which was all I knew at the time. (I later found out that he was in charge of large swaths of continents, if not entire continents. Apparently his Division at one point was Latin America. Bloody hell, Grandpa.) I don’t remember everything that he did, the Sri Lanka and Pakistan visits were so very long ago, but when I was growing up what I remember most was that he made frequent trips to Moscow. To help out, I knew. Now, looking back on it, I think this must have been during Perestroika, given the time. I didn’t know about that, or about glasnost policy reform. I knew that Grandpa brought back the most beautiful black fur hat that looked very Russian indeed, and was huge and warm. And he brought me back books of folk stories that told me about combs that turned into forests and wolves that talked and hearts kept in boxes. And videos of the Bolshoi Ballet. Matryoshka dolls of Russian leaders. Scarves to wrap around my head at which point my Grandmother called me little babushka. I thought it was the coolest thing. Later, after the Soviet Union broke apart, he went to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and Ukraine, assisting with the fallout and the restructuring. Recently, with what’s happening in the Crimea and Ukraine and with Russia, I keep wondering what he would think about it. What he would say if we sat down to have a discussion about it. He tried to sit down and have a very serious talk with me about economic policy in North Africa once, but I was seven, and very much not interested.
The stuff sticks in my visual memory, and a lot of my emotional memory as well. When you’re little, you don’t think about the things your parents teach you, only what they give you. At least, not the things they teach you like patience, awareness, curiosity. There is one very tangible thing that Grandpa taught me: when I was going off to college and applying for my student loans, he sat down with me and went over every detail of how they worked, what words meant, what my repayment schedule would be, and why these particular loans were better over, say, those other ones the company offered. Not only did he give me this education, the gravity and the intensity with which he did it impressed upon me how important this was to do. Both because these were serious decisions, but also (I was 18, and still very impressionable) that this was something a Serious Adult did, and I wanted very much to be a Serious Adult like Grandpa. I still do, really. A little while ago I was looking over my mortgage paperwork, because my property taxes had gone up (amazing what buying a historically old, previously unlived in house will do for neighborhood values) and things needed to be adjusted accordingly, and I read the whole paper. Both sheets, both sides. And again, and a third time, until I understood each part of it. This was, I think, the day after I got the call. And I smiled, realizing that this was something very important he’d given me, this knowledge and the awareness of how it could be used to make one’s life better. I cried a little, too, as you do. A happy-sad moment.
And something that I only realized recently, I think I must have gotten my global curiosity from my grandfather. It was his job that took him and my grandmother and my mother and aunts and uncle overseas, first to Spain, then to Chile. It was his job that took him all over the world and gave him stories to take back to his tiny granddaughter of ,far-off, very different places. It was his idea, I suspect, to take me and my cousin to London and Copenhagen for a holiday when I was twelve. Originally we were heading to Barcelona, but the Summer Olympics were held there that year and, heh. Wasn’t going to happen. His expertise helped me study and report on the rebuilding of the Japanese economy after World War II for a history class. I even think I still have some of those books. And his curiosity inspired me to look more globally, myself, albeit in a different manner.
The thing I remember, the thing that everyone I’ve talked to remembers about Grandpa, is that he was endlessly curious and unfailingly polite about it. He traveled to other countries and did the jobs he did for the World Bank because he genuinely wanted to help people, but not in the sense of having a rigid idea of what constitutes help, and forcing them to conform to it. Economic stability, food on tables and roofs over heads. I don’t remember him, ever, raising his voice in anger, and I don’t ever remember a time when he told me about some place that he’d come back from with anything less than specific, polite terms. Adult terms, newscaster terms. Textbook, or at least the kinds of textbooks one finds are meant to inform and not indoctrinate. His stories were full of “And there are these people over there, and they do these things because that is what they do, and they tell these stories and believe these things.” “Why?” “Well, because that is what they do and what they believe.” To him, the world was full of differences, and that made it wondrous. He was never afraid to ask a question or to be corrected, He never told me that these people over there were strange, or exotic, I remember that very clearly, or rather the absence of those concepts. Simply, these people live in this place. They call it this name. They call themselves by this name, and they do these things, and tell these stories.
And I grew up amidst all of this. Speaking two languages, then three, then suddenly being able to choose what I studied in college and wanting to study more about these far-off places with people who did different things, believed different things, told different stories. I wanted to learn all the stories and all the ways, just to know what they were. Sometimes to know why, but also just to listen and learn and enjoy the myriad ways people found to live. Until this last year I never gave much thought to where that came from, but all things considered, Grandpa must have been a hugely influential part of that. I decided to be an anthropologist, to be a historian, I wanted to do archaeology, but it was all the same manifestation of a deep-down desire to learn how other people do. And that came from Grandpa flying off for two weeks to places I could barely spell, countries smaller than my tiny seven year old finger finding it on a globe, and coming back with wonderful stories about how things were over there.
I didn’t, obviously, become an anthropologist. If I make any amount of money off of writing or whatever else I damn well intend to keep traveling, to visit other places, see other countries, meet new people. I continue to learn new languages so I can read other stories in their original words, because everyone’s stories are fascinating, and certainly there are more out there than I could hope to read in a lifetime.
Right now I’m just trying to get by. Travel is a long way off, except where it isn’t because I am going to Portland in two weeks. Other countries are even further off, except where I’m still studying a minimum of two languages per day, working on expanding my vocabulary in five or six. Simultaneously. Look, I never claimed to be rational. Finding my feet again in a world with Grandpa not in it anymore, with that part of my family gone from me for the rest of this lifetime, which is a bigger change than I generally like to think about. It’s been shaky. I keep thinking I should be doing better than this, and I keep underestimating the impact he had on my life and how much of a wound his death leaves behind. I keep thinking, Mom and my aunts and uncle are doing fine. Disregarding, of course, that I am fairly sure they think of me and my siblings and cousins as the little ones, in front of whom weakness is not to be shown. So, day by day. I still have the list of projects to get through, which are now three months, almost four, behind. Dime novels, stories. I, too, have stories to tell. And I do mean to tell them. I promise. Till then, day by day.