A Good Man in His Own Time and Place
WHEN I was a child I often went up to our cavernous attic to play in a corner fort I built. Sometimes I would go over to the one small window to look out through the ivy to the rooftops of the houses nearby. Sometimes I would put on the attic fan to feel the swoosh of the breeze it pulled up through the house. I never climbed the permanent ladder that led straight up to a little hatch door that opened out to the flat top of the roof. Dad went up there to fix the TV antenna and to put tar on the roof. I p referred the imaginative adventures below.
Later, in the mid-1960s, during my junior high school years, I went up into the attic one day, more interested at that point in snooping than playing. I found an old-style leather suitcase with straps, opened it, and realized immediately that it belonged to my grandfather.
I am named for my paternal grandfather, Reuel Hull Sylvester. His first name, which is my middle name, is obscurely biblical, chosen by his father who farmed in Iowa, prospered young and retired to his porch, his Bible, and his lifelong work for the Methodists.
My grandfather died when I was two. I have no memory of him, only his name and the recurring experience of my parents telling me as a child that I reminded them of my grandfather, that I was "like" him.
My grandfather was a child psychologist, the inventor of the "form board" test for children (the one with square pegs and round holes). He also prospered in Iowa as the owner of a private boarding school for mentally disabled young people. They came to him from all over the country, until the country went belly-up after the stock market crash in 1929.
Grandfather lost everything except his education and his family. He went on to teach in a university in Iowa, founded a psychology department, and stayed at that work until he retired. I heard his story over and over again as a child, and I heard that I was "like him," sensitive and bright.
The suitcase of my grandfather's that I found in the attic was full of papers. On top of the papers was a "fez," a red felt cone-shaped hat with a gold scarab on the front and a tassel on top. It was his Masonic hat. I put it on. I lifted the papers out one by one. It was as though I'd found some missing pieces of a puzzle.
There was a copy of his doctoral dissertation from the University of Pennsylvania, a picture of him in his Army uniform, a picture of him as a young man with old-fashioned pince-nez glasses looking at the camera as though he believed that the world was his oyster. There were some pictures of houses and of my father's mother. What I remember most is the hat and the dissertation; both seemed tinged with a power I wanted to have some day, the power of the ripened mind and the symbol of certain adult male ri tuals. As I read his words and wore his hat, I felt that I could have such powers, that I could, indeed, become "like him."
In 1969, I went to look at colleges and put his school, Pennsylvania, on my short list. I went to Philadelphia and checked into a hotel. My father had told me that Philadelphia was his father's favorite city and that he made a trip there from Des Moines once a year for many years. When he went to Philadelphia, he always went to Bookbinder's, the famous seafood restaurant. So I went there too. I ate my meal and thought about the pictures of him as a student in Philadelphia 50 years before.
I looked at the school, made my application, and was eventually turned down. I was surprised and disappointed. If I had gotten in I probably would have gone, to be "like" him.
In 1971, I went to the library at my university, Berkeley. I went there to study almost every day. This time I had to do some research in the card files. I was in the "S" section and, on the spur of the moment, looked under my family name. There was an old, yellowing file card with my grandfather's name on it.
I couldn't believe it. I wrote down the numbers and looked up the title, which turned out to be an article in a journal. I was proud that his name is in that file. This told me more about what it might mean to be "like him."
TWENTY-ONE years later, after I had chosen my profession, gotten two master's degrees, married, published, step-fathered three children and fathered two more, I faced the task of closing up my parent's home. It had to be done more quickly than I would have preferred, and unexpected factors made the process somewhat chaotic. I couldn't get everything in the truck and trailer I had rented to haul their things. I had to leave some things in storage, hoping I could eventually go back.
Soon it became clear that I could not make another trip and those things would have to be sold. I contacted a dealer who agreed to undertake the job. "I had to move things so fast," I said. "Please, if you find anything personal, send it to me." She agreed.
A few weeks later a box came. I opened it. It was full of pictures and family memorabilia. My heart sank thinking it might have been lost. There were pictures of my grandfather, some I had never seen before. And among them was an 8-by-10 portrait of my grandfather as a young teacher, handsome and confident. I put it up in my office. But after a few days, I put it back in the box of memorabilia.
As I looked at that picture and looked into the mirror next to it, I realized that I can only be myself, just as my grandfather could only realize the potential that was uniquely his to realize, in his time and his place. It occurred to me that if he was the kind of man my family said he was, then all he would want for me would be to become a good man in my time and place.
It helped me along the meandering path of childhood and youth to be told I was "like" a helpful and successful man, to put on his hat, read his words, eat at his favorite restaurant, and find his name in the big library. It helped me imagine that as he had done well, I could too.
But he is, finally, a mystery to me. I never knew my grandfather, except through the words of other people, through pictures, papers, and a hat. Those were, happily, enough to help me imagine what I might become. They gave me what I needed when I was young.
I just wish I had known the man. Known him in all of his living complexity and ambiguity. There are questions I would like to ask him about what to do when some dreams come true and what to do when others are taken away. I can still read my grandpa's dissertation and articles, and I would share my writings with him if he were alive. But best of all would be to have some time to tell him about myself, and to hear how he might respond to me.
For just as I still wonder about him (even if his picture is put away), he must have wondered about me, imagining things about my future, curious about what would become of the little boy who was never more than a baby to him but who happened to bear his name.