My paternal grandfather was what people in the South call “a character.” The man himself would have likely agreed with this appraisal, though he would have added “of great moral character, poetic disposition and indisputable noble destiny” to the end of it. He was a legend in his own mind, a bullshit artist par excellence, whose skill at wholesale fabrication suggests that some distant relation may have not only kissed the Blarney Stone but attempted to swallow it whole. From my grandfather, I believe I inherited a love of storytelling, of tales intricately rendered, with larger than life personages facing extraordinary circumstances with stunning heroism, dazzling aplomb, and (because he was from Mississippi) at least one dangerous secret in a stately home fallen into disrepair under the creeping shadows of the Delta in late summer (the man never told a story—at least to me–set in cold weather). It is from my grandfather that I learned that the wildest stories are probably the truest and that a “true” story does not have to be factual to be painfully honest on an emotional level.
My grandfather wore a bunch of hats in his life. He spent some time in the newspaper business, some in advertising and a lot chasing some big idea or another. He was an excellent writer. He wrote long letters in this elaborate 19th century script (with an accompanying 19th century vocabulary) but never spelled my first name correctly. He piloted fighter planes in World War II and chased William Faulkner around the Kentucky Derby hoping for an interview (he didn’t get it). He never became the next William Faulkner or the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or the next Thomas Wolfe. Probably because he was too busy emulating their drinking habits to match their creative output. Possibly because being a writer felt too passive for a man who always believed himself to be the hero of the piece.
Some pretty dark and ugly things can churn to the surface when people talk about my grandfather. He was born and raised an affluent white man in a context in which it would have been a nearly unimaginable triumph if he hadn’t been some flavor of bigot. And then you know, the drinking, the failures, the increasing disconnect from reality, the fact that the post-war years did a very good job indoctrinating an (in retrospect) highly traumatized generation (by the Great Depression, by War, etc) of young people that the best way to deal with all that was to bottle it up, never speak of it again, buy a house with a white picket fence and start having children and what could possibly go wrong? We’re the kind of family that can make jokes about having a DSM volume all to ourselves. And you know, narcissists gonna narcissist. My grandfather was a smart man, but rarely self-aware enough to be entirely in on the joke. He wasn’t famous for his apologies.
He did, however, have his moments. He famously crossed out his former jobs on out-of-date business cards and just wrote HIMSELF under his name. Just before he died, twenty-one odd years ago, he wrote the occasional column for a local newspaper in the Florida panhandle. He had cards printed up which listed his title as “Pope of Defuniak Springs” which is so hilariously perfect that it makes me think my grandfather knew more about himself than he let on, or that we let on that he let on, the preservation of myth being a thing that gets passed down through the generations and all.
He died twenty one years ago. His funeral was mostly a lot of letter reading, his letters being the best evidence of the man he almost was and might have been, both as a writer and as a human being. When you do words for a living, it’s pretty easy to look good on a page. The nasty bits and boils don’t show through the white spaces. Anyone can appear confident if they just use the right verbs. I thought about this, as I sat in the pew, listening to my dad read my grandfather’s eloquent and moving description of his first moments of flight over the Mediterranean Sea. From behind me, I heard the shuffle of footsteps, the heavy carved door of the Episcopal Church scraping the stone floor. I didn’t turn to see, but someone told me later it had been my grandmother. She’d divorced my grandfather the year I was born and spent most of her life going out of her way to avoid ever seeing him again (a challenge in a small town in Virginia). I don’t think wanted anyone to know she’d shown up at his funeral—certainly not his brothers and sister—but when you’ve been married to someone for nearly three decades, you pay your respects, even if your marriage is full of disappointment, especially if your marriage is full of disappointment. The man on the page. The man in the flesh. The continent’s worth of distance separating the two, so great that even my grandfather’s most epic and godlike conception of self could not span it.
When I was a kid my grandfather used to roll around in this enormous brown Buick, fitted with an 8-track player–even after they stopped making cars with 8—track players—so he could play his two favorite albums Nancy Wilson’s “Yesterday’s Love Songs/Today’s Blues” and the Original Broadway Soundtrack of “Camelot.” Kennedy era classics (or almost, the record store pedant in me has must confirm that the Nancy Wilson record came out just after JFK was assassinated), which also feels on point, even if I doubt very seriously my grandfather voted for Kennedy. It seems of a time, an era in which men like my grandfather could believe they were gods, even with all evidence pointing to the contrary. And decades later, as he’d slalom down curvy mountain roads, smelling of whiskey and limes, wondering what the king was doing tonight in unison with Richard Burton, between drags of cigarette, it would occur to me (as I slid helplessly around the backseat) that he maybe he was singing about himself.
My grandfather didn’t have much when he died. Big dreams are expensive, after all. You fail. You fail better. Maybe you end up Samuel Beckett. But with the right amount of bourbon and self-delusion, you’ll probably just end up broke, possibly surrounded by people joking about donating your liver to science, and maybe doomed to an afterlife of your children and children’s children, at best, equivocating your legacy.
I get songs from the “Camelot” soundtrack stuck in my head all the time, out of nowhere. I don’t know if this counts as an actual haunting, but in the middle of the night sometimes, when I can’t sleep, when I think about the person I am and the person I want to be and the gulf that separates the messiest part of myself from my best, most reliable stories, out of nowhere, with full flourish of orchestra I’ll find myself wondering what the king is doing tonight.
I’m pretty sure he’s scared.
(Photo of my grandfather, circa late 1940s, either sneezing or emoting. Both seem appropriate)