Sunday, April 11, 2010

Family Flotsam Hour

I went, this last weekend, up to my grandfather's old house, off the expressway up in Northlake, to go through some old stuff and sort of say goodbye to the place--he died this past fall, and the family is getting ready to rent it out. My grandfather, Don "Bepop" Warfield, lived there only the last decade of his life. He moved in when Roys, his wife of 50+ years, died. My dad lived with him for several years, and was his general caretaker as he slid gradually into dimensia. Towards the end he could remember nothing of a timely or practical nature, such as whether he'd eaten lunch, though he retained his good-sized reservoir of old family stories, polished to gleaming gems through decades of re-telling: the time he played hooky to go to a Sox game and ended up winning a raffle for season tickets, or the barn where he and his unit hid during WWII, getting hammered on French wine while the enemy swarmed all around--Bepop, thoroughly drunk, slept through a hail of bullets which pierced the barn's walls all around him, and woke up miraculously unharmed.

The parceling out of Bepop's old things seemed remarkably casual--furniture, books, paintings and things he'd spent a lifetime accumulating. All I was particularly interested in was the boxes of old photographs. My cousin Ellen had already claimed the photographic cache, but there were several boxes, and with my dad's blessing I felt justified in taking just one--I do hope my cousin, who reportedly reads this blog, is not offended, and trusts that I will vouchsafe them solemnly, and share them with her in whatever way possible. Anyway, I couldn't help myself. I love old photographs to begin with, their haziness and saturation; and these were not some flea-market discards but my actual flesh and blood--actual pieces of my grandfather, rearranged on a photonic level and applied to light-sensitive paper. This fleshly detritus, I figured, would help fill out the skeletal anecdotes which my grandfather had whittled down, out of possible thousands, to a mere handful. I might gain some familial insight.

I've pored over the contents of the box for several days now, and I have not yet unlocked any nagging mysteries, or grasped my grandfather as a complete man. Grandparents generally exert a powerful influence on their grandchildren, but the bond is forged during childhood, and tends to be more emotionally instinctual than it is rational. My grandfather will never be, to me, the steak-eating, golf-playing, staunch Republican pragmatist who drank his cocktails old-fashioned at 5:00 each evening; he will forever remain the gentle old man whose face lit up whenever a grandkid entered the room; who'd traveled the world and who loved life, I mean clearly savored it, even in his last years when he was prescribed antidepressants and mostly slept; and the great dry wit who rose out of a coma, while in hospice care dying of pneumonia, to tell my father, conspiratorially, Lets get the hell out of here. He didn't like the bogus, mass-produced art which hung in his hospital room--we had to cover it with sheets for his well-being.

A man is an enigmatic beast, is what I'm getting at, and a box of family photographs isn't going to change that. But what hours of pleasure it can bring! I don't expect anyone else to derive the particular pleasure that I do seeing my grandfather in short-pants driving a donkey--

but some of these pictures are pleasant enough on their own merits, genuinely charming bits of Americana. I'll let you enjoy a simple picture-show, while I'm busy wrestling with the questions of family, self and mortality that the pictures will inevitably provoke. Here is a young Donald driving, inexplicably, a little goat-drawn cart--where, and why? A paragon of all-American boyhood, he has his hair meticulously--but not too meticulously--parted to one side, his shirt tucked in and a ridiculously wholesome smile plastered on his face; he and his goat might, had things turned out differently, have rode clear to Washington and run for President, so great is the prewar optimism which he beams toward the camera. Here is a youthful Don striking a variety of poses; an androgynous toddler on tricycle, in a delightfully abstract portrait:
As a pensive tyke, contemplating eternity on some South Side beach, probably Promontory Point--dig the proto-goth chick scowling in the background:
And, around the same age, play-fishing with a stick, his impossibly Rockwellian innocence foreshadowing, perhaps, the Reaganite naivete of his later years:
Here he is, young entrepreneur, a wee Horatio Alger, selling peanuts at a football game:
And as a young schoolkid on the south side of Chicago--this is at 48th and Kenwood, quite close to the one-time Obama abode:
Now he's an adolescent, lanky and bespectacled--the back of the photo says "Punk Europe Bound," punk being my grandfather's nickname from childhood, when the word had none of its modern connotations. It would have been a prewar Europe that he was visiting, as yet unravaged:
And a few short years later, as an enlisted man, dodging bullets and deciphering code in enemy territory--
--where his unit received a surprise visit from ex-German film star Marlene Dietrich, who was touring with the USO mere miles from the German lines. That's my grandfather, two men to Dietrich's left, with a slightly lascivious grin on his face--who knows how long it had been since he'd see a woman in a slinky dress:
After the war, Don attended the University of Chicago, where he met his future wife, Roys, with whom he'd have three boys, my dad and his brothers. Don settled into a life of hard work, peddling grocery store promotions to chains around the Midwest, building a decent, all-American nest egg, joining a country club, taking up golf and poker, while his boys drifted from suburban boredom to the fringes of hippie life--hitchhiking, growing their hair, dodging cops at the '68 convention. Here's Don around that time, with his wife, hair pomaded and with a salesman's optimism plastered across his face, seemingly immune to all the Vietnam napalm death and acid-drenched confusion of the era--
still, at heart, the happy kid from Kenwood who lived for his beloved White Sox. And here, in later years, the two of them world-traveling and looking almost imperial in haute-casual boat attire:
And later, Roys' death, lonely lunches at the country club, a gradual descent into senility as the horizons narrowed to near the point of infinity--his own infirmity brief illness, still watching the Sox even from his hospital bed, as he slipped in and out of coma, not caring whether they won or lost, just glad to hear the crack of bat on ball and roar of crowd.

I'm not sure what led me down this admittedly sentimental path--I certainly don't expect my readers, whose online lives are busy enough already, to join me in meditating on the transient life of some old fart who they never knew. Just wanted, really to share some pictorial treasures from a box full of heirlooms and family flotsam--better, I think, let just letting them oxidize in some dank desk-drawer.

1 comment :

  1. offended?!?!?!!? my dearest cousin, never, never think that. The images you posted here and the ones I have found in the boxes I took make me so happy and emotional. What a gift it is for us just to even have these tokens of lives lived. I feel truly blessed to have had such grandparents and such family still. the pictures make me miss Memom so much. I miss you too, come to NYC anytime. Thanks for the post.