Today was my grandfather Chick’s birthday, and mine is in four days. It’s a great way to take the edge off whatever milestone you’re hitting: share the weekend with someone who’s sixty years older.
He put great store in education, broadly defined. He considered himself a dumb jock—he played football, basketball, and baseball in high school and college, and was seeded on the masters’ tennis circuit until his late 80s. But he also played piano, raised bonsais, read constantly, and taught himself to paint for something to do on trips instead of taking snapshots.
He covered a good part of my college expenses. His own tenure, at the University of Chicago, sounds straight out of Fitzgerald—he even had a raccoon coat—but he knew times had changed and he tried to view my path without comment. Tried—he arrived once while I was in the middle of cutting a friend’s hair, and I heard him ask my aunt, “People can make a living doing that, can’t they?”—whether or not I could type, I did have something to fall back on.
His mother had two rules: no guns in the house and let her know before going out of town. I have no idea if particular incidents led her to formulate these rules, or if she was repeating family lore herself. From the vantage point of my cousins and me, the no guns rule might as well have been followed by “and no hippopotamuses, either.” The call first rule, however, came with illustration from my grandfather. He’d been eating breakfast at the fraternity house one morning when in come Skip and Binky and Fletcher: “We’re motoring down to Iowa City to see the big game. Are you in?”
My grandfather is, but he has to make a call first. Nobody answers. He gives it five minutes but still can’t get through. He tells the fellows he has to give it a pass. They pile into the car and head out.
Along some country road the car gets hung up on a railway crossing, a train is coming, and all the boys were killed. My grandfather’s moral to the story, “Always let your mother know before you go out of town,” was tinged with a strong dash of “Obey your mother.” My grandmother’s further lesson was “Don’t fuck with trains”—not at all how she would have worded it, but definitely that intensity. My brother, as a rebellious teenager, finally protested: if Grandfather hadn’t made everyone wait so long while he tried to call home, maybe they would have missed the train. But he wore tie-dyed shirts and didn’t cut his hair, so this possibility was dismissed.
As the next generation of city dwellers, I’m in favor of the no guns rule. And my parents and I, adults all, in- and ex-laws, follow the call me rule. “Just seems like somebody ought to know where I am,” my dad said before one trip. In the present era of cell phones and text messaging, I wonder if I’ll have to spell this one out to my kids, or if it’s the natural outcome of being wired.
[pictures are coming—apparently they’re on another computer]