“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” J.R.R. Tolkien
For most of my life, I’ve been blessed and cursed with thick curly, kinky hair. Blessed in that if left alone, my hair would do what it wanted- I was ok with that. Cursed in that what is considered hip, chick, and cool hairstyle can change quickly. Fortunately, the big basketball frizzy afro wave lasted through my high school days. I dribbled that ball right up to the day I wed, giving my children wedding pictures to laugh at. Today, I do what I can to keep the little remaining hair put. A baseball cap works well.
Growing up in a relatively large family, one is bound to compare one’s physical features with that of the siblings. Of the six of us, I alone had the ‘kinky’ hair! The others were either mostly straight or, at most, a bit wavy. So where did this genetic aberration of frizzy, kinky, thick, uncooperative hair come from? Did mother stand too close to the sun while I was incubating, or was there a brief encounter with the piano tuner?
Knowing nothing of the yet-to-be-developed DNA testing services, I was forced to look backward for evidence of my belonging to this family. Deep in a closet, I uncovered an old dusty photo album. In it, I found some black-and-white pics of my dad when he was a young preening lad. He was blessed with thick wavy hair, which he clearly had taken some pride in. He appears to have tamed his crop into a thick mop that he swept forward like a baseball cap. Color it red, pink, purple, green, or white today, throw in a nose ring or two, and he’d fit right in at the local mall. Cool.
In that same photo album was a picture of his dad, my grandfather. Maybe it was their wedding picture, but grandpa and grandma had straight hair. The style of the day was hair high on top and nothing over the ears. And it was verboten to smile for a camera. It wasn’t like it was against the law, but it certainly was expected that one looked serious when getting a pic taken. Perhaps it was because life was hard, and having your photo taken was rare and expensive. Something other than a stoic expression might suggest a sense of indulgent frivolity. Not cool.
I remember looking deeply into the picture of my grandfather. The longer I looked at him, the more curious I became. The more questions I had. What started as a half-baked attempt at self-discovery led me to him. I wanted to know him. So I allowed my imagination to take the little bits of information I knew and began reconstructing his life. But I wanted a real, unvarnished understanding of him- not the fairytale I’m capable of imagining and perhaps wishing. So I had to ask those who knew him questions.
Sometimes when boys become young men, their relationship with their fathers can become a bit complicated. Gone are the days when you proclaimed to your schoolyard buddies that your ‘pa’ was the smartest or the strongest man alive. Some think instinctual male competitiveness rears its testosterone head, allowing conflicts to arise. Others will argue that boys are prone to idealizing their fathers, and disappointment sets in when they discover the inevitable imperfections. Still, others think that we fixate on the imperfection of our parents and others to avoid accepting responsibility for our own shortcomings.
In retrospect, it should not have surprised me to learn from discussions with my father and his siblings that there were chinks in my grandpa’s armor. Some of his children harbored disappointments.
Grandpa died the year I was born. I was told he held me on his lap and would run his thick, calloused farmer’s fingers through my thick blond curly hair. Months later, and just 59 years young, he would die a painful end from a bowel obstruction poorly cared for by a quack. The diploma behind the desk, claiming the man a doctor was a forgery. That misfortune haunted the family for years. What if he had been properly cared for?
Before dying, he was allowed brief visits with his children. These moments for some proved cathartic.
With no choice, the family moved on. Grandma needed to find a job. But before that, she needed to learn how to drive a car. Her son, my father, did his best to teach her to drive a three-speed on the tree, but it was not to be. She found a job she could walk to.
To the family, the children that recall the final departing conversation with grandpa, those who were in some way hurt or misunderstood by him, found him soft and tender. That was perhaps not a natural state for grandpa. I’m told he’d prefer to engage in deep theological debates with others up to the challenge. I might wish to explain him by suggesting a deep, complex man caught between old Europe stoicism, and the enlightenment. The belief that emotionalism was a sign of weakness and challenges to long-held religious orthodoxies was under attack. But his children, as do nearly all, wanted a nurturing, tender father tuned into their wants and needs. They could give a rat’s butt about the various doctrinal battles of the day.
Finding grandpa is a lifelong endeavor. Discovering that he, as a father, had disappointed his children allowed me some insight into my own, sometimes complex relationship with my father. He had turned his fertile intellect to business and American-style success, unafraid of working long hours. He saw life as full of negotiations and the making of deals. Some of his deals turned out very well.
Interestingly, he preferred politics over theology. I think he found theological discussions tedious and prone to contradictory interpretations. Perhaps it was a reaction to his father’s passions and possible excesses which led him to pursue other interests.
In my journey to discover grandpa, I came to understand that our sometimes complex relationships truly concatenate together each generation- that hurt and disappointments are cojoined with love and admiration- each having their season. In contradiction, they exist side by side, generation after generation.
Today, I have children disappointed in me. They have legitimate complaints. I gently, of course, attempt to prepare them for when their children will discover the chinks in their armor. Be assured there will be a season and then another after that.
If my grandchildren were to ask me how to navigate the hurts, scrapes, and disappointments that are a natural feature of living, I’d suggest they attempt to imagine the opposite- a utopian existence where never a word is misinterpreted, anger never visits, and kindness is extended exactly as you demand. Of course, we don’t live in a fairytale as that would be entirely contrary to human history starting in Genesis. Dear children, accept the imperfections and contradictions of others, even your parents, as you will someday be confronted with accepting your own.
Grandpa died in 1955 having just purchased his own farm in America. Though his dreams may have been cut short, his dreams of greater opportunities for his children were mostly realized. They adopted their new homeland and thrived in a number of endeavors.
If Heaven were set up like bleachers where the residents could sit and enjoy those still playing the game of Life, the ultimate reality show, Grandpa might be surprised. He might even squint his eyes and watch with amazement at a musical band called Crescendo perform on bicycles in Hong Kong, the Red Square in Moscow, and dozens of other countries. He’d likely poke grandma to have her look too. Together they would sit in total shock, amazed that Crescendo, a band he founded back in 1922, was still playing beautiful music and doing it for audiences not just in their little village but all over the world!
He’d point down at where he was born, and just down the road now stands a theatre named after him. Inside the Baron Theatre are old pictures and memorabilia from when he was Crescendo’s conductor. In his little town of Opende, Holland, the village he left in 1948 for America, he has become kind of a big deal.
I was there with grandpa’s two sons for the theatre's grand opening. It was a glorious season of pride and admiration for both grandfather and father and uncle. The memories rumbled deep like a trombone, and whatever bitterness remained from our disappointments dissolved into hugs and love.
I caught a glimpse of grandpa that day, and in the process, I learned something of myself.
I have no right to call myself one who knows. I was one who seeks, and I still am, but I no longer seek in the stars or in books; I'm beginning to hear the teachings of my blood pulsing within me. My story isn't pleasant, it's not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves. Hermann Hesse