Lives without end

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

I am 56 now, and I have come to know that family stories have no endings. When I was younger, the family tales I heard seemed like pieces of a distant past. They were fragments pulled from memory, from a time long gone — shards of truth and myth lifted like sundry specimens from vacant riverbeds. Occasionally held up to the light, they spoke to me like ancient history.

I heard enough about the Depression and World War II to last a lifetime. The grandfather who left the family in Louisiana. The explosion at the Texas school. My dad being paralyzed from the waist down, a young GI trapped in a Calcutta hospital. The grandfather who then returned a pauper, dying of cancer, wanting to be taken in.

I am 56 now, and I have learned that family stories have no endings.

When I was 19, sure I had my own songs to sing, these ancestral excavations seemed like museum pieces. My forebears were faceless phantoms, my parents mere booster rockets. They may have launched me into outer space but now — no longer needed — they floated earthward while I continued my happy ascent.

When I was 26, I learned how these frayed and tattered pieces could be assembled in a scrapbook quilt — random acts of living sewn into a patchwork explanation of a life. My parents became real people, with histories and frailties and lives just as meaningful as my own. And I began to see how those life stories made them, shaped them, and how they used the family folklore to try to make sense of it all.

I also came to understand how each of us is a product of our time. The Depression and war were indelibly etched into my parents’ outlook and character, just as my coming-of-age era — Woodstock, Vietnam, peace, love and revolution — still lives within me to this day. They and I come from different generations; despite being family, we speak across that divide.

When I was 30, I had children of my own — still later, teenage sons — and I learned a lot about parents and children. Love so vast, so strong that it brings an ache to the heart. Laughter and joy and the constancy of duty. Sacrifice and reward, meaning and fullness and countless other things. One of which was the tussle between genetics and upbringing, nature and nurture, and one guy’s attempt to create stories with happy endings from the mess of real life, to change the course of rivers, to reroute familial currents.

I am 56 now, and I have learned that family stories have no endings.

I see now how my grandfather’s departure stayed with my mother for a lifetime, how such forces — and love — made her choose a steady partner like my dad, and how those mazed relationships affected her and me and him. And how the streaming themes that ran through previous generations have surfaced in my own life story. I don’t know what to say when she describes the kinship she feels toward my grown sons, fellow victims of a marriage that came apart.

In the days before my father died, almost 90 and infected with the poisons of Alzheimer’s, he seemed to be a man at peace. I spent two weeks with him shortly before he died, and there wasn’t a day he didn’t say what a beautiful day it was. “Another blue-sky day,” he would announce, as we drove to the hospital to see my mom. Then he would scour the sky for signs of clouds and point out his findings.

“One day at time,” he pronounced so much through the years that I stopped listening — until I was with him near the end. When I would ask about his mental health and his infirmities, he would say how blessed he was. He was in his early 20s when he was told he would not walk again; still in uniform one year later, he walked with my mother down the aisle. He never doubted God for a moment after.

In our final visit he still spoke of his days before the war when he worked at a funeral home in east Texas. In March 1937, he drove an ambulance for 72 hours straight. An explosion at a school in New London, Texas, killed 300 children. He delivered bodies to hospitals, morgues and homes, then would return to pull more bodies and body parts out of the rubble. He was 18.

These two episodes lived in him for a lifetime and helped make him who he was. I know that now. And I’ve come to learn some of the ways they made us who we were, as father and son. We all carry so much inside of us.

In the days after the funeral we told family stories, smiling with memories, shaking our heads in amusement. One of my grown sons was there, looking at the photos of my grandfather with his wildcatting crew in Colorado. My wife was there, too, cousins, my sister and her daughters.

I am 56 now, and I see how threaded we are together, the ones there and the ones not — from ancestors long deceased to parents of our children with whom we are still tethered, even though we long ago parted ways. We all carry so many inside of us.

And now, just yesterday, a son looks up at me. He is 4, and perhaps it is the glasses or the eyebrows or the slant of his eyes, but in that stunning, fleeting moment I see my father’s face. It is the briefest passing of a look, the imploring glance I too well remember, that made me think my father always a little sad.

So I sweep him up and carry him through the house, reminded of how my dad once rode me on his shoulders, savoring this beautiful moment in a long line of moments strung across the generations like gifts for those who pay attention. He, too, will hear about a grandfather he won’t remember, who’ll affect his life in ways he’ll never know.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.