Today’s post is part of a series written in conjunction with the Senior Memoir Writing Workshops taught earlier this year by writing coach and workshop leader Bonny C. Millard. Knoxville Writers’ Guild sponsored the workshops, funded with a grant by the East Tennessee Foundation.
By Darrell R. Gooding
I was in my thirties when I visited my grandfather.
It wasn’t the first time I had seen him and wouldn’t be the last, but it had been twenty years since the last time when he came to our home in Jamestown one weekend afternoon after having been to the livestock auction. He introduced himself in an awkward moment.
My mother hadn’t seen her father since she was a teen. He had been around; he just hadn’t been present. The divorce from my grandmother decades earlier had estranged him and poisoned any hope of anything resembling a normal relationship, at least, up to that point.
He went on to remarry and his second wife made sure the loose ends remained untied. His visit to our home was cordial. It was thought of as an invitation to renew a relationship and one, as events later unfolded, was not meant to last nor remain mutually welcomed.
Here I was, however, this time at his home, an old clapboard house on Japa Road with a front porch that spanned the length of the house. A few weathered chairs welcomed guests on occasion. It was a country home, a rural home, a farmer’s home.
He was there along with his wife, my step-grandmother, whom I had never met. She was quiet. She observed with little acknowledgement. That, I learned, was more her way.
“Do you remember me?” I asked stepping on the porch.
He was standing in the open doorway to greet this visitor who stood before him. He didn’t remember me. Of course, I had changed since he had last seen me. I wasn’t the short chubby youth he had met years earlier.
“I am your grandson,” I announced. His eyes grew wide, and he smiled.
I am sure I was the last person he expected to shadow his door. My grandfather and I were more alike than I remembered, more alike than I imagined: short, stocky, thinning hair, and both possibly never strangers to the stinging dullness that life brings.
Perhaps it was the dullness of a long summer’s day that led me to his house, rather than a curiosity about him. Had it been the same that brought him to us those many years ago?
He and I visited. We talked. His wife watched and listened with an apparent indifference. Maybe now would be the time to develop some rapport with him, to obtain some understanding of the man he was as well as the person he wasn’t. No, we wouldn’t go fishing; he wouldn’t take me target shooting or teach me about the plants where the woods meet the clearing’s edge, nor would we relish meals together.
It was just a cordial visit. We talked. It was a visit I still remember with fondness.
When next I saw him, months later, I had changed jobs, and his health had deteriorated.
He had suffered a debilitating stroke and resided in a nursing home where I now worked: a restrictive job surrounded by people I did not know nor care to know, and he possibly the same toward his new surroundings. We were more alike than I imagined.
One day I entered his room, which had been decorated with photos of his children and grandchildren but none of my Mom or of me. I wouldn’t expect there to be photos of us. That old estrangement was still there like a shadow.
I asked him if he remembered me. I looked the same when I had last visited his house. He shook his head. He didn’t remember me.
I found myself feeling indifferent but without judgement toward this man, my mother’s father. Like he once was, now was I – around but not present. There was no need to be present.
He died a few months later. I didn’t go to the service; no notice was published in the local paper. Being alike, I am sure he would not have come to mine either, whether there was an obituary or not.
Perhaps this brief but cordial relationship taught me something about him, more so about the person he wasn’t rather than the man he was. Likewise, it taught me something about the man I was, or perhaps, more importantly, the person I wasn’t.
Darrell Gooding was born in Fentress County, Tennessee, on the Cumberland Plateau where his family has resided for several generations. Gooding graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a master’s degree in Educational Psychology. His work in the social service field eventually brought him to East Tennessee where he has resided for the past ten years.