They say my grandfather wrote poetry. He did most of his writing in his farmhouse kitchen late into the night; a single light bulb, like a noose, dangling above him. There he pounded out meter and rhyme.
He was a farmer by trade, peddled fruits and vegetables. He used to pick my father up at school so he’d have someone in the front seat of his open cab pick up truck, howling in the dead of winter, “s t r a w b e r r i e s, b l u e b e r r i e s.” The only problem was, his flat was empty. The women in the neighborhood would stretch their milk white necks through broken screens and holler at him to ‘take the boy home, before he gets death of cold.’ Emil wouldn’t listen, only ramped up the volume.
He fought in World War I, entered France with a battalion of roughly 1200 men; only 13 walked out. At one point, crouched in a foxhole under enemy fire a man appeared next to him, and told him to find his own place to duck for cover. Emil, dazed and dutiful moved down the trench, and before he knew it, a bomb exploded right on top of that man. Nothing left but a few fragments and particles of clothing drifting in the wind. He went home without a scratch, but not unscathed. He was fiercely loyal to his family, and equally harsh in discipline. My father and his brothers learned that Emil’s word was law. They respected him, feared him, and without fail obeyed him.
Emil and his wife Gladys raised quite a brood on that Parsippany, New Jersey parcel, had them sacking potatoes before they could read, in the trenches weeding or planting depending on the season. Gladys, the younger sister of Emil’s first wife was stronger than two office men, a woman of six feet and then some. I remember her arms mostly, toughened by kneading, skinning, hoeing, carrying everything from feed sacks to feisty toddlers. Her physical strength mattered, but something else mattered more.
When cold would seep into the bedroom upstairs keeping my father awake, downstairs in the tight living area Emil would pour out his soul to this woman. The old clapboard farmhouse had little insulation, so for all the mastery of his universe he exuded, the boys heard a different side, as Emil relived the war, or fretted over how they would make ends meet. The old family picture I love is of Emil standing behind his brood, powerful biceps, rippling forearms, the one no one could beat in arm wrestling, but the one who needed the strength of a different kind. Gladys was good for him. She would stroke his straw like hair, and sing gospel hymns. Not that Emil was very religious, but he did know what side of the universe got buttered, and by Who. That’s what I imagine he wrote all those lonely soul searching evenings, spiritual thoughts, exploring the depths of his own principals, and convictions, matching them up with what he knew about God’s intentions, and coming up short. Too much blood on the hands of a man, sent innocent, naïve and proud into war, but returned hardened and harrowed. On those lonely nights, it all came rushing out of him, an attempt to extinguish the fires of the memories that threatened to carry him into madness. The songs settled him, perhaps the same way David’s harp soothed Saul.
They say my grandfather had a knack for words, though sadly, nothing of what he scribbled in those wrinkled sweat-stained journals remains. Gladys gathered them up one day in anger, and pitched them into the old barn foundation. Not long after, it was bull dozed to make way for tract homes. I wish I had them, so I could understand this man I knew so little; and discover the roots for my own love for words. Perhaps memories are enough, for they create space in the mind a context through which we can find our own set of answers.
When I close my eyes I can see myself sitting on his lap, watching the Yankees play on his small black and white T.V. He seemed ancient then, broken, quiet and generous. One day he placed an 1895 silver dollar in my hand, and pushed my fingers closed. Never said a word.
His name was Emil, and he was grandfather. At a recent reunion, his oldest son, Eugene waxed eloquent about the old man. I listened, and detected in his voice a feint echo of respect, fear really, of a man who had raced toward the enemy, into a sheet of hot lead, and lived to tell only a very few about it.