At the time, I agreed; something must be wrong with my Dad’s Plymouth Volare. Later, I realized that my grandfather, Edwin (Eddie), was simply too proud to admit he couldn’t drive a stick. I sat in the passenger seat as he angrily jammed “the shifter” down and pulled it toward him while calling it a mother fucker and a goddam piece of shit. The car lurched backward, forward, and backward again, then coughed and stalled.
We made it to the fishing hole without issue, but leaving its parking area required putting the station wagon in reverse. Having his 10 year old grandson witness his ineptitude only fueled his abuse of that innocent transmission. My suggestions and encouragement were met with icy stares. Not only had we failed to catch any fish, we were also stranded. Finally, at wit’s end, he threw the car into first gear and made a U-turn in the grass. When we arrived back home, he let my father know that his “goddamn car was broken.” It wasn’t, but we all tacitly agreed it was due for a tune-up.
Fishing was the only time I spent alone with my grandfather. I remember 8 or 10 trips to the nearby river. My family used those outings, and the occasional arm wrestle, as evidence of our strong bond. I never spoke with him about anything serious. I’d say I regret it, but that would suggest I had the maturity to initiate a conversation that went beyond reassuring him that I wasn’t going to fall in the water. Even if they lacked emotional depth, the trips were nonetheless profound. Interactions can be silent and shallow without being meaningless (right?).
Fishing is the only thing I remember him enjoying. He worked too hard, for too long, and had too many children. He spent a lot of time after work at the Red Carpet Bar in Dayton. I think that was his social life. No one in the family ever saw him in that environment, but we knew he was there because my grandmother would call the bar to tell him we’d arrived at their house. He would walk in a few minutes later, smelling of beer and smoke, and full of new dirty jokes and old praise for the fried fish sandwich.
Many years later, long after he’d been diagnosed with dementia, my Dad and I took him back to the Red Carpet. He ordered like nothing had changed, but when the food and drink arrived, he became confused and lost his appetite. It was hard to watch him struggle to enjoy a beer. We tried to engage him, hoping that the environment would jostle his brain back into lucidity. I think he was hoping the same, and when it failed to happen, we all wanted to leave.
I’m not sure anyone understood my grandfather, but I’m also not sure there was much to understand. I don’t mean that as a criticism. I think we have a peculiar desire for people to be more complex than they appear; like there’s another life inside them filled with more robust experiences, opinions and emotions. The reality is that people are far more commonly just as simple as we perceive them.
He died when I was in my early 20’s. After the funeral, the family congregated at my grandmother’s house. Walt, his youngest brother, looked and spoke exactly like him. As he was leaving, he found me, shook my hand, and said, in a voice and demeanor that was unmistakably that of my grandfather,
“Let’s go fishin.”
Walt had no intention of taking me fishing, and I don’t think I would have accepted a serious offer. He just wanted me to know, in the simplest way possible, that my grandfather told him stories of how much those fishing trips meant to him. It was Walt’s, and in essence, my grandfather’s, way of telling me how he’d like to be remembered.
I suppose that’s what I just did.