My grandfathers died when I was too young to really remember them. Instead, I have general impressions and a few vivid moments that stick in my mind. Mostly, I know what people say about them, the stories that survived their lives. As far as I can tell, both made for subpar husbands, not so wonderful parents, but awesome grandpas.
My dad’s father was a caboose man on trains. He swung the lanterns and road the rails. I was told he “had” to marry my grandmother. I can believe that, since theirs didn’t seem like an especially good union. If they had anything in common, I never saw it. Rumor was that Grandma was a waitress at a restaurant my grandfather frequented often. The rest was too scandalous for my young ears, but they stuck it out and raised three children. My father swore he wouldn’t have a marriage like theirs, that his years wouldn’t be spent in endless arguing. But by the time I hit the stage, they were too old and too tired to fight daily. I remember Grandma as reclining on a couch, eating bananas and reading True Detective magazines. Her favorite words were, “I did my duty.” My grandfather, on the other hand, still had a zest for life. He took us out to eat whenever he won at poker. He won a big pot once and paid for Dad to drive to the east coast so we could play on the shore. And he loved to tell stories. Stories about a drunk who passed out on the railroad tracks and the train cut off his head, and everyone had to take their lanterns and search the fields, looking for it. Stories about chugging through storms and staying in little towns. I loved sitting on his lap, listening to him weave his tales.
My mom’s father was a truck driver. Pure Danish–a dark Dane, he always added. His parents settled in Wisconsin and farmed. How he met my grandma, I don’t know, but Grandma glowed when she talked about “Pete” coming for her with his horse and buggy and taking her to barn dances. Grandpa was a lot of fun. He took us for ice cream cones and bought my sister and me shiny tricycles. But he was not to be depended on. During the Depression, he worked for one trucking firm after another to keep a job, but he didn’t send any of his money back to Grandma. Instead, he stayed with Grandma’s sister and her husband on their farm, eating meals, while Grandma struggled alone in Chicago, trying to keep a roof over their four childrens’ heads. She lost the house, was forced to move to a tiny, two room shack, and sent the kids for buckets of lard and flour to fill their bellies. After the Depression, Grandpa returned, and Grandma took him back. “Why?” I asked once, and Grandma said, “It was different then. Not many jobs for women. I had four children to raise.” And she still loved him.
What is there about scoundrels? They make for great stories, because Grandpa Pete told us about driving his truck through the mountains when the roads were narrow and twisty, when he had to put his leg out the driver’s door to scrape his rubber-soled shoe on the road so the ice didn’t send him over the steep dropoffs. He told us about shanties perched on the side of ravines with pigs living under the front porches and chickens running across the front yards. And he told us that rain was fairies dancing on the roof, and that thunder was Thor knocking down all ten pins in the sky’s bowling alley.
My grandpas had their flaws, but the way I remember them is through their stories. Maybe that’s why I love myths so much to this day. And maybe that’s why Tyr and Thor made their way into my novel, EMPTY ALTARS. Maybe that’s why I loved reading books to my kids and sharing the tales between the pages. A legacy from my childhood that I can pass along.