In the mirror

What precisely did I see? And of that, what have I blotted out? As a kid, I always felt somehow lacking any authentic traditions, not solely from Grandpa and Grandma’s side, either. While much of their Sunday dinner conversation felt banal, I’d assumed – only half-right, as it turns out, we’d been in Ohio since its beginning. Nothing of the Carolina Piedmont was acknowledged, although in time I would eventually hear a touch lingering in Aunt Vera’s inflection.

What I remember is imbued with a sense of loss and foreboding. Contemplating my grandparents is difficult because I, too, have spent so much of my life trying to break away from their ways, no less than they did in regard to their own grandparents – I, with my passion for fine arts and literature, my radical political convictions, and, especially, my zigzag spiritual quest that paradoxically led me to reclaim practices and teachings of our earlier ancestors. Even after I was active within the Society of Friends, Grandpa never mentioned it had been the faith of his own father. Nor did he ever let on that he knew our surname had used three spellings – Hodson, Hodgson, and Hodgin – a problem that plagued Floyd and me as we delved into the labyrinth of our family origins. Only after Grandpa’s death and much struggle in piecing together the appropriate Quaker minutes and our finally concluding the three spellings really did spring from a single source, did Aunt Myrl recall having a slip of paper on which Grandpa had written the three variants.

Theirs was also the generation that relocated from the farm to the city. For Grandpa, there were other departures from tradition, such as joining a secret society, the Masonic lodge, which would have been a disownable offense in the churches of most of his ancestors. Leroy, his brother, did likewise, in addition to serving in the U.S. Army during World War I.

Granted, these reflected society at large, and my grandparents did live through two world wars that reshaped American attitudes and life. Nor were they that far removed from the American Civil War; both of their fathers had been born before its eruption, one in North Carolina, the other in Ohio, in pacifist households.

Also hindering clear perceptions of Grandpa and Grandma were my subconscious attempts to fit them into the archetypes of idealized grandparents. Or, more fully, my mother’s efforts to fit them into the fairy tales she held regarding perfect families. Who insists, after all, that grandparents are to be doting and spoiling, free to go home at the end of the day? Or even that anyone deserves to be perfect? For that matter, Mom was the one to complain when her stepmother, our Gran, slipped my sister and me each a dollar bill for the week – effectively doubling our allowance.

In the long haul, simply showing up for occasions marking others’ milestones conveys more than I had imagined, regardless of my sense at the time. From the photographs, I see Grandpa and Grandma were present when I received my Eagle Scout badge, took confirmation, and graduated from high school (but not college).

More telling, there was no need to call them Grandpa and Grandma Hodson.

Look closely, though, or ask around, and you’re likely to find nobody whose grandparents quite fit into the warm, doting prototypes. The same goes for exemplars as parents or the idealized home life.

The sugar-coated ideals numbed us to what was present. Or, in my case, kept me from voicing what was missing or my desires. Suppose, for instance, we grandkids had said we didn’t like the homemade ice cream? Or had asked to be taken fishing? Maybe we would have gotten a better answer than the story of one of Grandma’s kin who ate so much ice cream so fast his stomach nearly froze, or another who rested his rifle on a stump and fired, only to be fatally injured in the kickback.

I’ve been unable to confirm those stories, by the way. Let’s just leave it at that.

These are important factors in considering the changing nature of nuclear families today. There’s a nostalgic image of home, with a father employed in a well-paying job, a stay-at-home nurturing mother, and the happy kids. Again, the model bears little relation to everyday encounters.

These fantasies carry a heavy price. In attempting to view our families through their standards, our focus turns quickly to what we find missing rather than any good that’s present. Having a full set of grandparents who are active in one’s childhood is not a given. Both of my mother’s parents were dead by the time of my birth, although her stepmother, our Gran, was a supportive presence – and, however frugally, a “spoiling” influence.

As I look now at Grandpa, I realize he probably never met his Hodson grandparents, still alive in North Carolina. His McSherry grandfather died when Grandpa was seven, followed the next year by the grandmother. Rhoda Jones, the Quaker grandmother from Columbus, must have died about that time as well. Meanwhile, Grandma’s Ehrstine grandfather and her Rasor grandmother were already dead by the time of her birth; her Rasor grandfather died when she was 10, while her Ehrstine grandmother lived until Grandma was 20. Thus, by the time Grandpa and Grandma became teenagers, just one of their combined eight grandparents was still living. As a consequence, my grandparents had little memory of what their grandparents did or an experience of their stabilizing influence as while growing to adulthood.

Grandpa’s siblings likely filled much of the developmental void in teaching and learning from each other the social skills for their world. Five grew to adulthood; one died before his birth, another when he was one, and a third when he was 12 – old enough for him to grieve and remember.

When it came to grandparenting, theirs was a matter of winging on-the-job self-training while dealing with any number of other demands.

Mom’s fairy tales, meanwhile, tended to skip quickly to the happily-ever-after finale, ignoring the essential, often terrifying sequences that comprise the core of the story. For that matter, she had trouble handling movies or novels that had ambiguous or melancholy endings. The happily-ever-after, however, is a static condition, without further growth or plot.

The impressions I’d held of Grandpa and Grandma – as well as those of my parents – were limp facsimiles compared to the unspoken tensions I finally detect under their inconspicuous facades. Each of us carries, to some extent, discrepancies between the ways we see ourselves and how others see us. There’s also conflict between how we’d like to be seen and what we assume to be the case, as well as between the values we proclaim and those revealed in our daily actions.

Not until my dad’s funeral, when his youngest sister unknowingly provided me with two essential perceptual keys, could I begin to fully scrutinize and know their parents. In asking if I remembered Grandpa’s seemingly provocative slogan, “Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber,” TJ extended an image I find too good to pass up. More powerfully, though, was a sense of needing to a circle of hypocrisy came as an invitation to see them and their church circle unmasked. It was time for me to delve thoroughly into so much I had previously kept deflecting.

For me, their lives keep returning to the issue of religious faith and its culture – how much these converge or diverge our daily life. In many sects and denominations, a person can live out the distinctive practices and disciplines without any awareness of a divine presence or leading. One can participate in holidays and festivals, uphold dress or dietary restrictions, or perform rituals without any profound underlying conversion. Consequently, one’s religious identity may have little connection with an ongoing experience of God.

Ultimately, this is where my sense of deficiency regarding family tradition originates – the lost peculiarities and faithfuless in a sincere and loving religious stream I’ve finally uncovered.

When Floyd pointed out that once my grandfather had mentioned “Ermy’s family was Dunker, way back,” it was something Grandpa never told his grandchildren, just as he never told us of our Quaker origins. It was a surprise even to my father. So how far back was “way back,” anyway? Here was something Floyd’s father, Grandpa’s half-brother, had been told – Samuel, who had been baptized into the old order German Baptist Brethren faction of this stream, after marrying into one of its families – Uncle Samuel, with his beard and suspenders; and his wife, Aunt Grace, with her cape dress and prayer-covering cap. And to think, at family reunions, I was afraid of them! A major question in examining Grandma’s ancestry, then, was determining when and why her family left the Dunker discipline. As it turns out, “way back” was Grandma’s grandparents.

Religiously, while Grandpa and Grandma had roots in strict “peace churches,” they were active in the mainstream and prospering Euclid Avenue United Brethren congregation; tellingly, in their later years, after changing neighborhood demographics led to the dissolution of that assembly and the sale of its building to an African-American congregation, they joined First Brethren church, unwittingly turning toward Grandma’s underlying Ehrstine heritage. When I was a child, the routes we took to Arlie and Edna’s farm might pass one or the other of two mysteriously plain white meetinghouses still partly encircled by horse “tying sheds.” We had no idea that one of these “Dunkard” churches was on land donated by Grandma and Aunt Edna’s Ehrstine ancestors.

Perhaps an awareness of these Old Ways gnawed at Grandpa’s own religious sensibilities. Did he perceive them as too restrictive or demanding for modern society, or too ill equiped to address changing times? Did he ever wonder whether he could measure up to their discipline, or did he believe he had supplanted it with a more adaptive version?

There were sharp differences. The Old Ways relied on “free-gospel ministry” from unpaid members of the congregation. In contrast, Grandpa and Grandma cherished their seminary-trained, paid clergy, possibly held to a separate set of lifestyle expectations. Where the Old Ways emphasized discipleship and daily practice, Grandpa and Grandma’s progressive variety would have emphasized saving souls and teaching – and even professional musicianship. I’m left wondering, too, how much of an impact the Masonic lodge had on Grandpa’s spiritual and worldly outlook, in place of the church itself. Where in all of their religiosity – the paintings, books, and phonograph records – was the genuine article?

I have no reason to question their sincerity or intentions. But the hints of hypocrisy in the matter of alcohol or tobacco or playing cards points to what Quakers would have called “being inconsistent,” a failure to uphold personal integrity or wholeness. Grandpa publicly boomed the official creed and judged others by it, yet privately held to a relaxed standard, at least for himself. Grandma may have done likewise, in her own way. Perhaps this extended to politics as well, where Democrats could do no good and Republicans could do no wrong, regardless of details.

Grandpa encapsulated his self-image in his slogan, “Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber.” But did Grandma see herself as a plumber’s wife or even want to be regarded that way? How would she have cast herself, given a choice? And how did his and her desired purposes fit together or clash? If his motto hints at any role as a husband, it’s the diligent provider rather than a passionate soul mate. If it suggests anything of religion, it’s along the lines of Main Street convention rather than a distinct Kingdom of God or a daily Cross. Grandma, in stark contrast, remains silent.

Historically, grandparents have been the preservers of tradition, teachers and stabilizers across generations. Grandpa and Grandma, though, turn their backs on two long traditions, attempting to adapt to living in the city, rather than farm, and be “modern” as seen from the pinhole of Dayton, Ohio. Paradoxically, by my college years, I had cast off the generic mainstream Protestant faith we had practiced, which led me by degrees through agnosticism, yoga and its Hindu trappings, and finally to the Society of Friends, with its proclamation of “primitive Christianity revived.” Although my grandfather was still alive by the time I became a Friend, he made no mention that his father had been a Quaker or had migrated from North Carolina to Indiana and then Ohio.

Grandpa, of course, knew of the Quaker heritage but said nothing, even after I was clerk of our Meeting, the local congregation, in Washington state. Nor did he say anything when his first grandchild married and we all went up to Salem for the ceremony in the Evangelical Friends church. On that trip, I was riding with him through town when we passed a mysterious dark brick building set back in a wooded lot. “What’s that?” I asked. “Oh,” he answered, “that’s the old-order Quakers.” Later, as a member of the Conservative, or Wilburite, branch of Friends, I worshiped repeatedly in that building. His description also drew chuckles both there and in Iowa: “Yep, that’s us, all right.”

And so, I’ve long perceived Grandpa and Grandma as a blockage in my line of tradition. Now I ask, instead, which traditions they’ve added to the mix.

For both TJ and me, 14 years apart, much of growing up in Dayton harbors emotional torment and struggle, memories we would rather keep at a distance. Hearing her reveal her side, with hurt, is quite the opposite of what I’ve expected. In our turns, we each wound up living far from the Miami Valley – at opposite corners of the country, in fact, rather than its center.

Psychologically, much of my childhood remains blocked from memory, suggesting trauma or dysfunctions. Yet after TJ’s disclosures, a host of buried memories surfaced from my own McOwen Street experiences, with some opening on to our own home on Oakdale. Up to that point, much of my perception of Dad’s family was filtered through my mother’s lenses and extensive commentary. For starters, she had said the Ehrstines were a strange family. “They weren’t close,” is how she explained it. What she said was what they said, perhaps the others who had married into the family. Perhaps as they gathered at family reunions or dining tables. But then, they said the Hodsons were also strange, in a different way. Now that I know both descend from “peculiar people,” as the Biblical phrase was applied, I have a clue. For instance, historian Carl F. Bowman describes a self-denial that refused even to celebrate birthdays – something my Dunker and Quaker ancestors held in common. Over the years, she accumulated a list of perceived slights, misunderstandings, resentments, obligations, and puzzles she relayed on to her children. But now, after examining her family, as well, I find much that’s downright Gothic on her side, once the blinders are off. Just what were her expectations, anyway? And how able or willing was she to fulfill her end of the relationship?

TJ’s husband, Uncle John, has reasoned, “It wasn’t a fun-loving family.” I think he’s close, but not exactly on target. Rather, I would say it wasn’t a family that took delight in life – especially in ways that could be voiced with each other. When activities become duty-driven or results-oriented, they easily lose the essential quality of playfulness, even within work. Sometimes I get glimpses of a playful and inventive strand in their past, such as Grandma’s grandfather’s prized hybrid 14-foot-tall stalk of corn or her own box of balloons in the pantry, or in Uncle Leroy’s love of new gadgets.

In John’s observation, I hear echoes of two related stories. One, from the Quaker side, tells of a time when students at a boarding school went to the elders and asked to have an activity that was “fun”; the elders, taken aback, said they’d have to think about it. Their eventual response was to spend a Saturday painting a widow’s barn. The other was an oral history where an older member of the Church of the Brethren was asked what he did as a kid for. He, too, was taken aback and realized they never thought about having fun in those days. “I guess it was bringing in the cows,” he finally said. My Hodsons inherit that sense of fun from both of these streams.

Fun, as such, was a foreign concept. It doesn’t necessarily mean becoming practical jokers or rambunctious clowns. It can include contentment watching flowing water while waiting for fish to bite or feeding the cat or embracing one’s own foibles. Or, in Uncle Samuel’s case, of looking back on a beautifully shocked cornfield, despite all the work getting to that point.

I’ve wound up owning a curious volume, a small scrapbook Aunt Anna kept, largely from the ‘20s. Originally, very few of the names or places meant anything to me, and the recorded activities were trivial. What I now see is that this was Anna’s attempt to document their having fun, with a vengeance.

Where I’ve sensed tragedy in the move to the city, Leroy’s wife would rather present comedy. Her newspaper clippings and photos reflect an seemingly innocent, almost giddy social scene. The novelty of progress belies the Great Depression and World War II just around the corner.

Cousin Floyd also looks for similar evidence when he reflects on the first family reunion: “On that Sunday we all had a good time. There was plenty of good food, fellowship, horseshoe pitching, a softball game and even a few footballs were being thrown. A big kite was flown by Uncle Leroy. Uncle Bill and Uncle Emerson hit a few golf balls. During the fellowship in the afternoon, Aunt Ruth Jones said, ‘I think we ought to do this every year.’ So the Hodson Reunion was born.”

I recollect from my early childhood a reunion held at somebody’s farm, possibly in Indiana, and my being afraid of Uncle Samuel in his big beard and Plain clothes. How wrong I was! Floyd continues: “I reflected on all those Sundays that were so important and enjoyable in my life and those whom God has called to Himself. … My father and mother who loved every one of you so much, lived for that day, especially the many times they hosted it. Friendliness and the sharing was a natural virtue of theirs. The name Hodson meant so much to them. They lived simple lives but added to their name’s standing.

“Uncle Emerson, what a horseshoe player! He could pound a softball over the fence. I can see his smile now and hear his laugh.”

Meanwhile, “Uncle Leroy always added interesting sidelights for the day: kites, model airplanes, cameras and projectors, pictures, always a participator.”

Leroy and Anna were members of North Riverdale Brethren church, probably through the influence of his wife’s ancestry. When the Brethren Church set itself off from the rest of the German Baptist Brethren in 1883, it was the “progressive” branch, which might explain why Leroy could become a member after serving in the U.S. Army in World War I and while belonging to Dayton Masonic Lodge No. 147. He was also a member of the Gideons Bible Society and the Christian Business Men’s Association, and a trustee of Grace Brethren Retirement Home and the Dayton YMCA. Both of Leroy and Anna’s sons, who followed in the plumbing trade, became widely known square-dancers and callers – another playful social activity, “something they could do as friends,” as Cousin Wilma perceived.

When Floyd considered Aunt Ruth, he said, “I’ve never seen anyone with so much vitality and enthusiasm, loved by all. Joy bubbled forth from her like water from a fountain. She always made it a happy day. Uncle Bill was always there with his unmatched humor, a truly wonderful person to visit with.”

Bill taught algebra in my high school, and I always heard him spoken of warmly and respectfully. I’ve always regretted not having him as my teacher.

Floyd’s observations, of course, overlook the brooding edges of the family. A physically abusive husband. Economic failures. The divorces.

What they do show is how diverse Grandpa and his siblings had grown.

Sometimes a single detail can be telling. In this extended family, as far as I can tell, there were no nicknames – certainly nothing playful or nasty. Plain names worked just fine.

I’m left wondering how much of their ancestral legacy each of them rejected and how much they retained, however consciously. For starters, my Hodsons were very likely Republican in North Carolina, from the time of Lincoln. Their township had been a center of manumission effort and was only a few miles from the birthplace of the Underground Railroad. But that’s hardly what the GOP was in Grandpa’s time, much less our own. And who today would tout politics while drumming up business? Was Grandpa in any way active in party organization? Or a heavy financial contributor – with or without Grandma’s knowledge or approval?

Nor did we think of Grandma’s heritage as Pennsylvania Dutch – especially not after so many generations of dwelling in the northwestern townships of Montgomery County. Nevertheless, the Ehrstine Cemetery we had unknowingly passed on our way to the farm, as well as the Parish and adjacent and Arlington cemeteries where so many of my Ohio relatives are buried, are filled with surnames common among the Amish, Brethren, and Mennonites, especially. I had never suspected that my grandfather’s Hodson line was the relatively recent arrival.

More difficult are the dysfunctions.

Nevertheless, photographs are clear: Grandma entered the grandmother role prematurely, while her last child was still young and she herself was years away from having a grandchild. There was a preference for girls, reflected in Grandma’s reaction to my birth.

Since Grandpa’s mother subtly and likely unintentionally turned the younger children against their father, her own position was elevated in their psychological realm while Joshua’s was repressed. As a consequence, each son could be expected to buy into his spouse’s family and its values to an uncommon degree. My impression is that Grandpa locked onto Grandma’s heritage; his mother, after all, was essentially Pennsylvania Dutch, despite her Irish maiden name. From the way he spoke of the past, I assumed that our Hodsons had been in Ohio from the beginning, rather than arriving sometime after the Civil War. Nor were we given any clue the many Hodsons living around Wilmington, just southeast of Dayton, were indeed kin.

So when it came to my grandparents, I knew them, yet I didn’t. Unlike my mother’s parents, who died before I was born, Grandpa and Grandma Hodson were still alive throughout my childhood. We spent many picnics, holidays, and Sunday dinners with them. As children, my sister and I sometimes stayed overnight with them. Who knows which generation was more perplexed by the encounters.

Nor did we really know our cousins. Two, from the other corner of the state, typically spent their summers on McOwen Street. The California cousins were another matter, too far away to have much impact.

If there are idealized images of grandparents, along with an obligatory set of actions, it would seem fair to also have corresponding roles for the grandchildren. On that regard, I must now admit falling short of their expectations. As I look at the snapshots, the ‘50s appear outlandish, an alien realm even for a child. My sister and I weren’t the type to gush on, currying favor, either. Indeed, Jill was painfully shy. Let it be said others upheld the role better than we did.

My evolving and largely bookish interests must have baffled Grandpa. The backpacking of our Scout troop and its succession of ranks were far from his Ohio farmboy upbringing. My interests in chemistry and the fine arts were already sprawling way beyond his eighth-grade schooling. As for plumbing? By the time I was off to college, it was obvious I wouldn’t be continuing to seminary and ordination.

Nor did I have the traditional interests of baseball or basketball. Once, stopping off at the Haines-Ehrstine family reunion with Grandpa and Grandma, I was introduced to Jesse Haines, who then let me handle a signed hardball. These days, I feel I owe him an apology. At the time, it meant nothing. A World Series winning ball, thrown by one of the greatest knuckleball pitchers ever.

Haines was also known as a deeply devout man. He and his wife, Carrie, lived next to the United Brethren church on State Street in Phillipsburg. “They had a lovely home. I was in their home many times,” Wilma said. “Their daughter Juette played the piano and organ.”

Just what do you do with a kid like me? One who was perceived as serious, analytical, largely inhibited – restrained – brooding.

Unexpectedly, I recall Grandpa’s skill at trimming his fingernails with a pocketknife, rather than using nail clippers. It’s a small, seemingly inconsequential memory, but it’s a skill I’ll never have. One of many, no doubt. As for their sense of economic fragility and peril, I can now also appreciate how well they did under the circumstances. Unexpectedly, too, I recall an outing at Englewood Dam, where Grandpa proudly grilled fat, juicy hamburgers over a wood fire and serving them with tomato slices. At the time, I no doubt would have preferred the thin, overcooked burgers I knew. As I recall this, however, I drool with a long-delayed appreciation of his emphasis and wish some lines of communication could finally be completed. That summer day may have also included a solo trek around the base of the earthen dam, where I came across an apparently flustered young couple adjusting clothing at their blanket at the edge of the woods – a flash image my prepubescent naivete failed to comprehend fully.

Or Jill’s recollection of the day: “Grandma always used to bring lemonade and iced tea to picnics, but she never used any sugar in it. They were so sour I never had anything to drink at those picnics.”

On the other hand, it now seems funny that as a kid, at family reunions, I was afraid of Uncle Samuel – the person closest to the values I’ve come to embrace. Or that my career track may have gone differently if I’d had Uncle Bill for freshman algebra. Maybe I would have continued in chemistry, if math had been taught properly. (The switch to “new math” my junior year, for algebra II, really messed us, the teacher as much as the students.)

For all the memories, I’m also thinking of other things Grandpa didn’t do. In a letter from Wisconsin, he mentions his fondness of fishing, and now I vaguely recall there was a bunch of fishing gear in the attic – but he never took any of us. Even if we didn’t want to go, he could have taught us any number of related lessons.

I now also see how a number of lessons I carried away from their house could have had other interpretations.

When Donna’s husband, Uncle Grady, the manager of an A&P grocery, told of chasing shoplifters and then getting beat up, or despite having a bad back, having to unpack trucks when the Teamsters held to their contract of driving only, the message at the time was how awful and crafty both shoplifters and Teamsters were. In retrospect, I might have instead seen the shortcomings of being lower-level management within a large American corporation – a lesson I saw repeated in my dad’s career in General Motors and my own in the newspaper industry.

What I have now is a much richer characterization than the memory of TJ yelling from the stairs at us kids, “Stop banging on the piano!” (We thought we sounded pretty good, I suppose.)

After my father’s funeral, we drove to Wilma’s, taking two cars and the scenic route via Far Hills and Main Street, giving my wife and daughters an overview of the city they didn’t get from Centerville or the freeway. My wife was is in the car with TJ and my sister, while John and the kids are with me. I hardly recognize downtown as it is now. North Main is quite dilapidated and shabby. McOwen has missing houses.

So here we are, TJ, John, and me, with our love of classical music and art galleries. What a wondrous surprise to learn, at last, that we share what Grandpa would have called a “long-hair” passion!

Working the puzzle has been an attempt to try to fathom just who they were, as well, and their influence, good and bad, on Jill and me, or Dad and his sisters.

During Vietnam, for instance, knowledge that two large chunks of my ancestry had been pacifist would have been very affirming. All I knew was I couldn’t fight in that war, for that cause. Something deep inside, even before the protests, shaped this. Even if I no longer at the time embraced the underlying religious principles, I would have responded to the idea that some of this was deep in my bones and blood; I had no idea, for that matter, how much the stance had once infused the United Brethren denomination.

Then there’s the big question: So what do we pass on to our own future generations? And how?

As for the accusation of hypocrisy, we are caught in duality and the fact that no matter how hard we try, we will fall short. But there is a big difference between humbly admitting our shortcomings and solemnly closing the door for privacy.

I keep returning to the problems of living our faith, of maintaining fidelity to our beliefs. Religion has two sides – those heights, the idealistic wonders, achieved and lived – as well as the murky, ugly underside, of schisms and legalism, where guilt appears rather than radiance, and self-righteousness rather than loving. In this I wonder, too, about illness, especially mental illness, and about unmarried sons and daughters and whether they felt short-changed or deprived.

What were their dreams, anyway?

Trying to discover precisely who Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber was turns out to uncover as much about Dad and my own childhood as it does about Grandpa. How I sometimes wish I could identify myself – or “brand” my work – as succinctly and successfully as Grandpa did in those four words. I can even see a flash of genius in the application of “leading” to that equation: here it becomes a positive value meaning whatever one wants to input – the best, the most progressive, the most ideal, and so on. Republican, too, appears to have a number of overlapping meanings – possibly Protestant, Main Street, Masonic, established, as well as a political agenda.

Yet, as I’ve pondered them, I realize Grandpa and Grandma are largely silent. They seem almost absent in the midst of much of the action. Was Grandpa ever put to the test – the moment that would prove him to be true or false? There were no floods, no tornadoes, no fires or shootings or knifings, nothing outwardly violent or traumatic, no major lawsuits to address. What remains is fragmentary, often disconnected, an array of sensory impressions, a single word or phrase like his “great land a livin’” exclamation. Often it’s as mundane as sitting in a car on an overcast Sunday morning and waiting for a long train of boxcars to pass so we may get on to church, with its pews in a half-moon facing a pulpit and an impressive multitude of yellow organ pipes.

Now I recall being repeatedly puzzled by his expression of gratitude, which always sounded close to “thank ye,” rather than “thank you.” I can venture it was a vestige of the older “thank thee” as well as the tendency to round off vowel endings, as when his wife’s “Erma” name became “Ermy” from his lips.

Was he always called “James”? As far as I can tell, yes. And as far as I know, there were no nicknames within the family, apart from ‘TJ,” if that actually counts.

Returning to that classic childhood question, “What does your father do?,” I find myself responding not to what my Dad did. He was an accountant, working for a large corporation in an office I never entered – there were always guards at the door and gray metal desks beyond. Instead, I turn to Grandpa, with his stacked tubes in the back yard and a cigar-smoking bookkeeper and the adding machine in a cluttered office. “He was a plumber,” I would say, with unanticipated pride. Who knows what an accountant actually does, besides adding and subtracting numbers in a way that makes the economy perform? But a plumber? Think of that when you flush the toilet or wash your hands.

On the other hand, if I were to counsel a young person on a career choice, I might as easily suggest, “Become a certified public accountant.” The pathways I’ve followed have closed, as far as I can see.

Well, maybe not. Plumber might not be so bad.

One of the realities I must confess is that despite all of my fond admiration for the Old Ways, both Friends and Brethren had many periods and settings where I could not have been a member of either. The discipline would have been too restrictive for my range of interests and practices. I’m not a farmer.

We live in a restless era. To remain in the place of one’s birth becomes increasingly difficult for each successive generation, and the demands of pursuing a career – plus the opportunities arising in the retirement years for living in a more moderate locale – mean that American families today are on the move geographically; siblings, parents and their adult children, cousins, and nieces and nephews are typically separated and find very little in common when they come together. “Forward thinking” and “progressive” outlooks are encourged (not the least through advertising), which has had the effect of disparaging the Old Ways.

In that regard, I hold something in common with my grandparents.

But I still have no idea what I’d get them for Christmas. Or a birthday, for that matter. You think you know somebody, but do you, really?


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