Grandpa’s final years were spent in a brick ranch house set in a loop amid fields along the National Road. Through this period, we seldom saw each other. I came down, from another corner of the state, with my fiancee when he remarried. And later, after our return from the Pacific Northwest and resettlement in another corner of the state, we came down for his funeral, conducted by two members of their church. “They nearly converted me,” my then-wife said afterward. His widow, meanwhile, said, “Don’t those hymns really move you? Don’t they really say it all?” Referring to the heavy vibrato electronic organ, rather than any singing we might have done.
He had married another woman with impressive Brethren roots. Another Capricorn, for that matter. “A good Christian woman,” as he put it. I remember a somber woman with two gracious sons, and rumors of some conflict with one of my cousins.
There were more trips to California, too, with his preference for Knotts Berry Farm rather than Disneyland.
Perhaps this was a time of reflection for him, before he collapsed and died while shaving.
We did not smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, or tell certain kinds of stories the way others did. We did not gamble, that I can tell. We did not party much, at least not in the raucous, outgoing, overbearing way that brings the police. We were not wealthy and did not live in the classier parts of town, either. In short, we were – and still are – a rather simple people. With some pretty good reasons.
About all we seemed to have was this odd, seemingly rare, six-letter name. Not as rare, it turns out, as I had thought. But still uncommon enough to cause problems: a name others often misspelled as Hudson or, as I could never understand, as Hodgson, with a g. Yet, as cousin Floyd Hodson has remarked, “A name is something we should live up to, wear with pride, constantly strive to upgrade its identity, let it always stand for honesty.” He adds: “I think the name Hodson has done all of these things. I’ve never been ashamed to introduce a Hodson to anyone. My name, because of the value and high standards given to it by my ancestors, has been one of my most valuable possessions.”
When I was an intern reporter at the Journal Herald in Dayton, I was surprised at the number of times I encountered the response, “Oh, you’re Marion’s boy,” or, “Are you any relation to James the plumber?” – to which would be added: “They’re a good family.”
But what does that mean?
Perhaps it was simply the lack of talk about anyplace else that misled me.
I do not recall hearing, as a child, many stories of my family roots – at least beyond my grandparents. My Hodson line seemed to possess little in the way of music, literature, or the visual arts, other than a generic Protestant religiosity and plastic-fork consumerism.
At any rate, searching for family roots was something I would have shied away from. In the end, each individual must assume responsibility for his own destiny, regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of genetic endowment. What is the good of finding distant linkage to royalty or fame unless estates or lost fortunes are involved? There is ego gratification, of course, but that urge entails risk: consider those who set out with high hopes that quickly shatter when they discover an ancestor hanged as a horse thief or that their good Christian name exposes relatively recent Jewish descent. At such points the quest is usually dropped. For others, genealogical investigation is a form of ancestor worship; frankly, I can think of better ways of spending eternity than being bound to legions sharing a surname.
Yet some curiosity remained. As Floyd observed in his letter: “When we think or speak of a name, we immediately think of those people’s characteristics, their habits, their personalities, and everything [else] that makes up every fiber of their being and [whether] it adds up to good or bad.”
During a visit home during Dad’s long decline to Alzheimer’s, I worshipped at a pastoral Friends meeting, rather than my more traditional “silent” variety. When an older woman asked why I chose them rather than another meeting nearby, I explained briefly that I enjoyed experiencing the other kinds of Quakers – and besides, I had the book, meaning a thorough oral history of the congregation and its town before they were relocated by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam project. She gazed at me and said, “It’s fiction. It’s all fiction.”
I keep coming back to this matter of identities and their influences. I think it’s often easier to say who or what we’re not than who or what we are, exactly. At least the negative list will always be much longer than the positive one. And that’s not even touching on what we’d like to be. But we can also look to the ways and times our personalities are revealed through relationship – or even opposition to another. Or, as the local rabbi asks, why do we keep telling the same stories – what keeps drawing us back to the Biblical dramas?
Self-identities and a sense of importance do shape us.
Going through my files, I find a later, undated note to me headed, “Formerly Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber, Now Just Grandpa Hodson.” Until TJ had asked if I knew his slogan, this entry was entirely baffling. Now, in context, he observes “a bit of joy comes as I realize I am one – only one – of ‘Those Shriners.’ That reminds me of what my good friend Dr. Gregory once said, ‘After all there is nothing much more valuable than a host of Christian friends.’
“Lots of good old fashioned Preble County love.”
This, after he had sold the house in Dayton and retired across the county line in Lewisville.
At last the meaning comes clear. All these years later.
* * *
Who would describe himself as a leading Republican plumber today? Not after Watergate, when “Republican plumber” became a euphemism for buglar, the band of bungling former spies and thugs actively attempting to subvert open elections and American democracy. A “Republican plumber” was even a CREEP, thanks to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Watergate, the hotel and office complex, itself carried a biting irony in this matter: “water gate” was originally a kind of plumbing.
Not that the Grand Old Party hasn’t tried. In 2008, the John McCain presidential campaign floated “Joe the Plumber,” touting Samuel “Joe” Wurzelbacher as just another regular Ohio man. A plumber, however, who wasn’t licensed and inexplicably had an income far above what any hourly wage would provide or an average homeowner could afford.
Of course, the Republican Party was transmuting from the party of Lincoln and Hoover into its opposite.
Dayton, too, is not what it was.
My attitude toward the bubbling Christmas tree candle lights has changed, too. They become somehow appropriate for a plumber’s Christmas tree, or perhaps even our own, which will never have tinsel. (My wife’s style is folk arts, unlike theirs.) As the owner of a house built about the same time as their McOwen street home, I’ve come to treasure a good plumber. The range of required skills for maintaining an old structure far exceeds my own, and with Rick, our carpenter and electrician, we’ve uncovered too many examples of people in over their heads over the years; it’s a wonder the kitchen roof never blew off in a nor’easter or blizzard.
In all of this, as I probe my memories of Grandpa and Grandma, I also sense a legion of ghosts behind them – not apparitions, exactly, but rather the people who were already old when they were small: connections from the years before automobiles and farm tractors became commonplace. This, I will argue, is their essence – something they knew they had lost, much the way Adam and Eve sensed deep loss in their expulsion from Eden. Of course, Grandpa and Grandma would openly admit that farming was never an Eden, not with so much endless hard labor. And like Adam and Eve, something was both lost and gained in moving on. Even so, in our Sunday afternoon visits to Grandma’s sister and her family, we returned to something unspeakably fundamental and true – the farm, set so close to so many other family connections.