My grandfather was a slender man with a high forehead and immaculate hands. He was a fly fisherman, we were told, and the reason we didn’t see him often was because he fished all over the world instead of staying home in Connecticut with his family. My father was his son. My father wasn’t a slender man; he was of normal bulk and had a full head of hair. His hands weren’t especially this way or that. As he aged they became arthritic, as did his shoulders, hips, and knees. The story of my grandfather is a story with a hole in it. I hardly knew him, and I believe my father didn’t know him well either, though he spoke of him as if he were a solid man and then a solid memory, when in fact I have evidence that he was more of a wish. It doesn’t matter who someone really is; what matters is who we think they are, and this is often if not always the result of who we wish them to be.
Grandpa was a very good fisherman, this we know. I see him in Iceland and Scotland, among the thermal lakes and heather. I see him in his waders, mid-thigh in glacial streams the color of chalk, casting out and reeling in, everything in his body chanting salmon. I see him on the heath, creel overflowing with brookies, woolen knickers, and a jaunty cap, a light persistent rain falling and a fine mist rising up from the strath. He is caught between two events of dampness, of water rising and falling. He swims on through my imagination, like a brookie himself.
He married my grandmother Katherine Kent in 1921. I have a black-and-white photograph of them strolling the boardwalk in a small Florida town—perhaps Palm Beach, no longer small. The ocean in the distance, palm trees, food vendors. Grandpa in his knickers and Katherine in a sheath dress, large-brimmed hat. It was taken on their honeymoon. A few years after that, my father was born, and shortly after that, they divorced. The divorce was amicable, we were told, and proof of it might be that my father’s brother Bill was conceived after the divorce was finalized. Unlike my father, Uncle Billy was a wild card. He raced cars, and married and divorced three times before he settled on a wife young enough to be his daughter. He was an actor, singer, and musician. He was always out of money and instead of calling on his father, he came right to my father at those times. Grandpa would have turned his pockets inside out and said, “Sorry. The cupboard is bare.”
A story with a hole in it is still a story. In fact, most stories have their hole, and many arise out of the hole. An absence of information gives us a reason to create fictions. The fiction I create around my grandfather is almost complete because I knew him so little. In my memory, we met fewer than a dozen times, always at Yale football games in New Haven. Memories of Grandpa all have something to do with autumn and cold knees and kilts. When I think about my grandfather, the air around my body feels crisp and clear and full of the predictable rhythms of marching bands.
But I lie. There was a visit to Grandpa’s home in Connecticut, and it had nothing to do with football. The air was soft and humid and the maples fully leafed out. He tried, that visit, to teach me to cast, to fly fish on the lawn out under the trees. My line kept tangling, of course, and my hands felt big and clumsy, and the fussiness of all of it frustrated me. But it was us, together. I couldn’t say I had a glimpse inside him unless it was the narrow view of his restless impatience. I was too young to know how to approach someone who didn’t make himself readily knowable. I blamed myself for the hole in our story when really it was there not because of anyone or anything. It was there, and is there, because we are in this life to mend something—sometimes an old grief, an old love, often to right a wrong. The hole is the place from which the mending material has been taken, snipped out to patch an older grief or wrongdoing or love. If there’s no hole, it seems like the story is complete, but that’s not to be trusted. We have to be part fiction in order to convey our truth. We have to leave room for others to create us and acknowledge that we are their creations.
ONE MORE THING TO SAY
Nothing is more frightening—of course many things are—than an empty page. It feels like a death to me, a death to myself caused by myself. Not a suicide, but the result of a poor choice. I want to write an elegy for Tony, but Tony’s not dead. I want to write about my mother’s fascination with mahjong, which is really a curiosity born of envy and jealousy surrounding her sister. I want to write something brilliant or just plain okay. I feel constricted emotionally and writing always helps that when it helps. Otherwise writing’s absence makes it worse, constricts more, the pressure that comes from diving too deep though in this case, it arises from the absence of depth, the inability to dive. I feel out of stories. I feel out of a point I’m trying to make by using story. What do I want to say? The roads are slick with quickly melting March snow. The mountain is boldly white. The trees I want to plant are worth more, most days, than ideas. The birds are mating. The pines rock in the wind. Up high they rock and wave—they undulate. Down at the base, they present an impassive face to us. I want to say these things because this is the world I inhabit these days, a world of things and branches and streets that shine in a certain light. Snow, impossibly, keeps falling. It has waited and waited and finally chosen now to fall. I feel tired. As if all my efforts deplete me. And I don’t know how to move without purpose, without effort, unless it is upside-down in headstand. I lived in headstand this morning. The waters loosened then and ran to the sea. I might remember that when the waters loosened. I like to look Bruce in the eye and try to remember him from long ago. Were those my eyes? My brother’s, sister’s, father’s or mother’s eyes? Were those the eyes of a dear friend? An enemy? I try to climb inside that history through his eyes. And up in headstand I let the waters run and the comfort come upon me and if you asked me to live there I would say yes and live there. Someday I’ll be invited, brought home there. So many things in a life besides writing neat prose. Sloppy prose may be a worthy endeavor. T chose poetry. It chose him. It goes with him when he goes. But he was smart and left a track for us to follow. Like breadcrumbs. Poems are breadcrumbs. The trail of them stays behind. The birds eat them but then the birds stay behind. I should really write about chickens. Or avocados. Those things interest me. Chickens and avocados. Is there a point I can make about chickens? Do avocados illustrate a truth I want to deliver? Why not just write, as others have, about how nice dogs are? Stop it. Why not write about pole-vaulting? Why not create an essay that is only questions? What’s on/in the mind? What if there are only ten things to write about and I’ve written about nine? I’d be lucky: I’d have one more thing to say.