by J.D. Scrimgeour
I was named after my grandfather, John Harold Scrimgeour, a man who was over seventy by the time I would be old enough to preserve any memories of him. My mother said once that she wanted to name me “Jonathan”” and spell my name the less conventional way—J-O-N—but my father said no. Like his father, I would be “John”—J-O-H-N.
I hardly remember my grandfather. By everyone’s account, he was a kind man. In some tapes I made with my Uncle, also named John, before he died of a brain tumor, my uncle said that my grandfather “had an acceptance and love of others as they were. He wasn’t concerned if you were a success or not, he just wanted you to be happy and be yourself.”
My grandfather worked most of his life driving a truck for his brother’s electric company, though he could have taken an easier, higher-paying office job. My father and John have told how he used to take the neighborhood kids for rides to the swimming hole in the back of the company pickup truck after he got off of work.
My grandfather lived in a decrepit house in West Boylston, Massachusetts, with his mentally troubled wife, who almost never left her bedroom. In my childhood, my family lived in Illinois, and so we didn’t visit often, maybe on Christmas if we came back east. There was always a clutch of cats around the house, and I remember the grimy kitchen smelling strongly of tuna, an unwashed can sitting in the sink.
The bedroom was not small, but seemed dominated by a huge bed that my grandmother always lay on. The headboard was against the wall perpendicular to the door, so that someone lying in bed could turn her head and see down the hall that ran through the center of the house. The curtains were closed, the light faint and dusty. The floorboards were thick, and dusty, too.
It was the bed, though, that remains in my memory, the blankets aged, like the spreads over the sofa in the living room, like everything in that house, colored a dull brown like dirty light, like there was no such thing as color. The thick smell of unwashed life rose from the sheets.
I rarely saw that bed without my grandmother in it. Sometimes when our family would visit after my grandfather had died, we’d peek in and see her sleeping, or almost sleeping, coming to consciousness in response to my father’s shouts of “Ma! Ma!” when we pushed open the unlocked front door. If she was awake, she’d be sitting up against the headboard, her mat of dingy hair pressed behind her, looking like a round loaf of grey bread.
Once or twice I was told to go into the room and “say hi to Grandma.” She’d look at us, smile tiredly, ask a few questions. I was glad when we would be released and could go breathe the outside air.
What was it that kept my grandfather minding her all those years before he died? Love? Duty? Fear of change? Kindness? Kindness.
One evening when my son came home from a baseball practice, he told me, frustrated, that he had done poorly in a running contest.
I sighed. “You’ve got to get faster,” I said.
“I know,” he said, turning away from me, and I caught in his voice a slight tremor that told me he was fighting back tears.
My parents happened to be visiting, and my father, sitting on our second-hand sofa, didn’t miss a beat. “I never could run fast,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
It was a helpful line, letting my son see that his lack of speed may have been inherited—he was not to blame—and letting him know that someone else had endured the same failure. Unlike my comment, it would hold off tears rather than bring them on.
My father isn’t always a particularly sensitive conversationalist. In fact, he often misses beats, even whole conversations, too engrossed with a Sudoku puzzle or with the newspaper. But thinking about his comment, I realized that he had been a parent who never said anything mean or cutting to his children, who never made them feel that they were a disappointment, who rarely let his own frustrations show.
I love this about my father, this gentleness: how, knowing what words could do, he wielded them carefully, seriously. Perhaps it’s the reason that I took after him and became a writer.
My grandfather died in 1976 in West Boylston, in that house that smelled of tuna and dust. A few months before his death, my father had sat down with him and recorded an hour or so of conversation about his life.
As a child, one of my favorite toys was a tape recorder. We had it for years—almost all black, save for the red “record” button. My brother, sister and I would fill tapes with various imitations of the grown-up world: sports talk radio interviews about the baseball game in the cornfield across the street, or “albums” by our made-up bands, one of us slapping an old, un-tuned guitar, another pounding on our chipped xylophone, making up lyrics on the fly.
The tape my father made somehow ended up in the shoebox that held all of our family tapes, and when, two years after my grandfather died, we moved back to New England, it was tossed in the moving van with all our other possessions. A few years later, my father came across it and rattled it into the family tape recorder, which he had set down on the kitchen table.
The tape began. The quality was poor, the hiss of ambient sound loud. The recording was especially hard to listen to because my grandfather had been quite deaf, so my father had shouted all his questions. As the tape unspooled, we would turn the volume up and down, depending on who was speaking. Still, it was hard to catch many of my grandfather’s words. It felt as dusty and drab as that house where the recording had been made.
Suddenly, there was the sharp crack of the record button being pushed down, and the sounds of my siblings and me. We were singing, or talking, making the kind of noise we liked to record. The recording was much clearer and louder than the interview—a burst of life and laughter.
Disappointment flooded my father’s face when he realized what had happened, and I might have even seen a flash of anger. I don’t recall specifics—his response was mild—but I know there was a rebuke, and I know that I felt guilty. It was something that couldn’t be rectified. The interview, those words from a man now dead, were gone.
A few years after my grandfather died, I read my father’s poem about waiting in the hospital as his elderly father has prostate surgery. The poem made me think more about the man I knew—my father—than the mystery he had gone to visit. In the poem, my father looks out a window and sees the wind whipping up the lake beyond so that it looks full of dark fingers. And, after a moment of calm, the fingers reappear and, as he puts it, “wiggle seductively into question marks/ like worms/ on the hook.”
Reading that poem as a thirteen-year-old, I felt the presence of death: how we can’t escape it—those fingers return--how it looms beyond all words. The poem also gave me a sense of what writing was: lamentations, elegies, confronting brute facts. Writing should end tragically, perhaps because life ends tragically.
Yet now I go back to that moment of calm in the poem’s center, when “the dark ripples die down/fade away into light blue.” I go back to how my father, in the poem, recalls talking with his father, John Harold, the previous night, how grateful he was to hear his father’s voice. And there, in the poem, are some words of my grandfather himself, words my father presumably transcribed, words not erased by a foolish son:
I think age is an illusion
We all fade into each other
Like colors in a rainbow.
J.D. Scrimgeour is a poet and nonfiction writer who coordinates the Creative Writing program at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. His second book of nonfiction, Themes for English B: A Professor’s Education In & Out of Class, won the AWP Award for Nonfiction. Recent essays have appeared in The Quotable and Pangyrus. He has also published a book of poems, The Last Miles, a chapbook of poetry, Territories, and has released a CD of poetry and music, Ogunquit & Other Works. In June 2014, a musical, Only Human, which he wrote with his two sons, was produced in Salem’s Ames Theatre.