A Conversation with My Grandfather–Part 2

The silences between me and my grandfather grow. The more he speaks, the less I say. He is ignorant, but not stupid. He lingers longer than he should in the silences, desperate for validation, for connection to a family he suspects no longer accepts him for who he is. He finally leaves, limping away back across the shared yard that separates our homes. There is no resolution for either of us.

Perhaps it is cowardice on my part. I don’t want to lose a man who has been a constant in my life, even as he spouts social vitriol as a matter of course. I fear confrontation because I am not nearly as sure of myself, my liberalism, my instinct for social justice, as he is sure in his dogma of social exclusion, fiscal Darwinism. I am young, he is old. I am inexperienced, he has decades of life behind him. Respect for the elder is long lost, but the intimidation of a long life remains, to those with a sense of humility at least. I trust my own ignorance more than I am certain of his. I remind myself of Yeats, a cliche who nonetheless remains insightful for his time and ours: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity”. Whatever else you might say of him, my grandfather’s anger is passionate and motivating. I have no such passion for life, an apathy born of a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. Comfort does not breed revolutionaries without concentrated intent, and more rarely, without a privileged conceit. These are personal failing which plague not merely my relationship with my grandfather, but my life composite.

Recognizing these personal failings, I nonetheless believe there is legitimacy in a certain kind of silence. There is a silence that smothers the rantings of a madman. There is the silence of a shunning. There is the silence of the persevering laborer, working to implement change, not wasting breath on those who never will. Whatever it’s the source, silence must be justified. So I strive to justify mine.

I give to just causes. I call my representatives. I educate myself on matters of social justice and political controversy. Perhaps most important of all, I participate in my democracy. I educate myself on my representatives and I vote. I vote even when I believe it will make no difference, so that I may say to myself, if no one else, “I have not been silent.” It is not all that I can do, but something has been done.

There comes a point where people are lost to you. My grandfather cannot be saved because he believes he is already saved. He is white, evangelical, blue-collar America–he was born saved. So I will not seek to save him. I will seek to save myself, to save my children, to save those who cannot save themselves. I may be silent; but in silence, I will work out my own salvation.

A Conversation with my Grandfather

An Essay by Blake Hurst

There is an image of the tribal elder, memory etched in the lines of their face, hair silver with time and decay, eyes deep beneath their brows like ancient pools where spirits dwell, whom we all believe, whether we realize it or not, is responsible for our being here.

There is an image of these elders, men and women, sages and chiefs, leading their people through barren tundra on the path of mammoth and elk, towards warmer climates where our ancestors gathered wild grain, fresh fruit, drink sweet water thawed from the snow of the hill lands.

There is a place in our memory, the memory of animals, the memory of lived history, where we remember the wisdom and grace of these elders; their ability to heal, their ability to preserve, their willingness to serve their children till the very moment the light of life was extinguished in their eyes and they were laid to rest in the earth they had walked for an age.

I struggle to believe in these elders anymore. I wonder that I ever did.

Reverence for the aged has been a constant of human culture, and their value, in experience, in wisdom, has been extolled age to age. And yet, I wonder if we have confused reverence with pity. I wonder if we have looked upon gray faces, brittle bones, and dull gazes, and thought to ourselves, in our heart of hearts, ‘Dear God, is that what I am?’. We have compensated for fear and discomfort with respect and a willingness to forgive which is not extended to those in their prime, to peers, to equals.

I am no longer willing to forgive.

My grandfather sits beside me. His face is wrinkled, his head is bald, his teeth have rotted long ago, replaced by artificial dentures, but his eyes, his eyes are bright, but they do not smile. He speaks at times about the beauty of chickadees and the laughing of squirrels, and there appears, for a moment, a remnant of the elder.

But he continues speaking, and his thoughts turn to those he hates: to Muslims who intend on establishing sharia law in the United States; to protestors, no, ‘rioters’, who defy the police, defy the government, anarchists, ingrates, he calls for a firing wall for all looters; he recalls Mexicans who cross the border, who steal American jobs while living off American paychecks, who vote Democrat, turning honest, hardworking red states purple, or God forbid, blue; and yes, of course, he hates Democrats. Queer-loving, God hating, welfare state enabling Democrats. He hates them most of all because they are impossible to see. Muslims, Mexicans, Black Lives Matter protestors, all of these are obvious because they are not white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant. But some Democrats are. Some actually pretend to be Americans like the rest of us. All the while, they plant subliminal messages in 5g networks, working with the ultra-rich and China to sell out the United States to the godless Communists. He is a godly man, so he does not swear. But damn them to Hell. God bless the United States as he remembers it.

I say nothing. Finally, he leaves. He leaves me wondering what value we ever saw in those who have lived so long. We decay and call it beauty. We grow resentful and morose and call this experience. We long for the years of our youth, denying the inevitability of change, and this is lauded as wisdom. I long to be proud of my grandfather, to believe in the elder once again, and the power of body and soul in the latter years of life. But I now believe that true experience is found not in age, but in disappointments and frustrated hopes. Perhaps in this, the modern elder, girded with hate, sure in simplicity, seeing black with one eye and white with the other, teaches us more than we realize.