Tuesday, April 15, 2008
As Alzheimer's disease relentlessly robs my mother of her memories, and me of her, I think of opportunity lost. Youth, rightfully, is centered on itself. It's a rare young person (and I wasn't one of them) who recognizes the wellspring of history and of connection that resides in the minds of one's elders; by the time we do, it's often too late. I wasn't entirely tardy with my parents; I pried some stories loose before they were gone forever. But about my grandparents I have many questions, and, now, no way to find the answers. It's hard to flesh out the details in family lore. But there are some good stories.
I only knew one grandfather beyond my childhood. Born in Russia around 1890, he went to Moscow as a teenager, where he got some sort of degree from an agricultural school (he kept it, must have brought it on the boat, and I saw it once.) While there, so the story goes, he caught wind of the revolutionary whispers and brought them back to his village. Down with the tyranny of the Tsars! Fortunately for him, his father -- the village Rabbi -- was friends with the chief of police who came to him one evening saying he had orders to arrest my grandfather the next day. Get him out of town tonight. So -- and this is the part I'd love to know more about, including the truth of it -- he up and left, in haste, around sixteen years old, somehow finding his way to a port. Somewhere. With money from whom? Getting a ticket how? Still in his teens, he shipped to America (in steerage? In a cabin?), checking in through Ellis Island, spending a while (how long? In what sort of place? A tenement? With whom?) in New York City. He made a friend (Polish? Jewish? Met how?) and (somehow) the two of them got a job on a farm in Pennsylvania, owned by former US Senator Flynn.
After a period of time, he and his friend, the westering spirit filling them, saw an ad in a newspaper for help wanted on a ranch in California, and hopped a train (hoboes? Scraped together the money? Confirmed the job before they left?) to Valley of the Moon. The ad was placed by, and Grandpa was hired on by, none other than Jack London.
Some stories I recall hearing from Grandpa himself: he became a trusted hand -- livestock foreman -- of Jack London, and rode the range with him, chasing and shooting coyotes. Many times he showed me the pistol given him by Mr. London: a five-shooter Smith and Wesson (or was it a Colt?), kept in a leather box and clean, oiled, beautiful. He'd let me break it open, an umbrella-like contraption lifting up from the center of the cylinder to pop out the spent shells (never saw any bullets.) The gun has disappeared, as have letters to Grandpa from Jack London when in Alaska.
The story goes that while away, London entrusted Grandpa with looking after his wife, a young beauty, his former secretary, named Charmain (after whom he named his yacht, on which my grandfather sailed a few times.) Staying as he did in the bunkhouse, he got a call one night from the main house, from Charmain, asking Grandpa to come there. The knocked-on the door was answered by the lady, fully unclothed. I believed Grandpa (because he was an impeccably honorable man) when he said (or was the story told to me by my mom?) that he repaired immediately back to the bunkhouse and never mentioned it to Jack.
After Jack London's premature death, my grandfather made his way to Portland, Oregon, where he got a job (how, exactly?) with Metropolitan Life. Trustworthy from the first knowing, he became a successful salesman, eventually ending up manager of the office there, after having been sent first to Montana, and then San Francisco. He met my grandmother in Portland, where she'd been born; that's a whole other story, with many gaps. She, among other things, was (so it's said) the first president of the Oregon League of Women Voters, and somewhere there's a picture of her with FDR.
Impeccable he was, and immaculate. I never saw him in an unpressed shirt, almost never absent a necktie. Rarely without a hat. Even after his first stroke, he walked perfectly erect. My mother says he could sit a penny on a saddle and ride at full gallop, returning with the coin still in place. He lived a few blocks from us and when he came to visit, he'd first head to our garage, where he'd oil the doors on my dad's car and attend to my brother's and my bikes, with one of those old-fashion oil cans. Thumbing the bottom, clickaglug, clickaglug.
Grandpa remembered very little Russian, but sang Russian folk songs with relish, boomingly. The love of hearing them is what led me to study Russian in high school and college. There was almost no phrase you could utter that wouldn't spring him into song; he had one for every occasion, mostly in English.
His English was perfect, florid, and just enough accented to be mysterious and charming. When I was about ten, I think, he had me memorize something that I'm quite sure he wrote himself (I've searched and have found it nowhere else.) There was some sort of reward involved: a dollar? I did as ordered, and still remember it. Overwrought, too wordy, but a connection to him that remains. It's how he talked, because he loved his adopted language. And here it is:
"Whatever we dwell upon most, mentally, we bring ourselves in closest contact with. That is why it so often occurs that we get most of what we most dislike, because our aversions and fears occupy so large a part of our secret meditations, even when we keep them out of our general conversation.
Concentration on that which we most desire is the surest way to bring it to us; but there must be no excitement or agitation in connection with our anticipation."
The power of positive (and calm) thinking, is what it is. He seems to have lived it.