Monday, May 10, 2010

The Man in Picture and His Lasting Influence

Once or twice before, people have asked me who the man in my profile photo is. This is my grandfather, my father’s father. And it is in the shape of his forehead, in the shadow of his deep set eyes, and in the gesture of his frank-looking, upturned chin that I see my own father. What are not visible here are his hands. My father and I both have his hands, with their visible tendons and prominent bones, especially at each knuckle.

This image of my grandfather was taken in the summer of 1934, a year before he and my grandmother were married. At that time, my grandmother, who took this picture, was 15. My grandfather was 22. The photograph has gone a dreamy sepia with age, and I’ve digitized it because the original is faded, folded, and stained from having been carried for 75 years in my grandmother Edith’s wallet.

Where my grandfather is standing is a place called High Rock, which overlooks a region in south-central Pennsylvania called The Pigeon Hills, so named because at one time, carrier pigeons filled the sky with such concentration, it often grew dark even at mid-day. Whether this is true or merely a local myth, I do not know for certain. However, this is where my grandmother and grandfather were born, seven years apart (one year less than the age difference between my own husband and myself). And when my grandparents married in 1935, my oldest uncle, Larry, was well on the way. So it is possible, based on my grandmother’s reminiscence of this time period, Larry was likely conceived at High Rock, perhaps even on the very day this photo was taken.

Before my grandfather met my grandmother, and while they were dating, he was a motorcycle trick rider, who rode only Indians. While they are few, there is at least one photograph of my grandfather, in which he is standing on his cycle seat, hands far from the handlebars, as the bike moves. Often, he would compete in hill climbs, competitions requiring bikers to get both bike and body up long, steep inclines, often punctuated by “breakers”--jumps the motorcycle must also clear while continuing to ascend. The trick riding stopped when my grandfather became a father. Instead, he became a mechanic and later an engineer, while also bagging groceries in the evenings to make extra money. He had a mind for electronics, and later, given schematics for Italian and German machines my father bought at European tradeshows, he maintained them for my father, using these schematics alone, since the owner’s manuals were never in English. But of course, this was much later, ten or fifteen years after I was born, and he was well into retirement.

My grandfather’s mother was named Savannah, which is where my name comes from. My grandmother, on marrying my grandfather, went from her home of endless sisters (although my grandmother is the last of her sibling alive) to live near Savannah's big Pigeon Hill-stone house, where my grandfather was born. And according to family legend, the first small place in which they set up housekeeping was overrun by rats, and when grandma found one near my uncle’s head as he lay sleeping in his crib, the family moved immediately to a place that was also near my great grandmother. (Savannah, in her later years, was largely bed ridden by diabetes, and it was my grandmother who cared for her. When I was younger, she told me that she would go to bed so tired, she would cry herself to sleep. ) Eventually, my grandfather would build my grandmother a wonderful little block house that had the first television in the neighborhood (so they had many visitors), but no indoor plumbing until the late 1950s. (Yes, that means there was indeed an outhouse and an outdoor pump from which water was drawn every day.)

Three boys followed Larry. My father was the second to last, or the third child, born at home—not in a hospital-- in the early 1940s. He was a war baby, who entered the world around the time the German General Paulus and the Fourth Panzer Army advanced on the city of Stalingrad to secure the oilfields in the Caucuses.

So, you see, the reason I use the photo is that this man was a major influence in my life, although I would not recognize this fact until later, when he was already gone. He was a quiet man, but when he spoke, you listened because what he had to say was always worthwhile and well considered. His advice was never frivolously offered, and his concern was always genuine. He was an incredibly good man, who thought not of his own needs but always of others’. It was he who requested my grandmother pack me cookies and milk in a travel mug when they picked me up from school. It was he who warmed up the car well before I had to get in on frigid winter mornings when my parents were away and he was charged with taking me to school. These are things you do not realize require effort and selflessness until you are an adult and perform them out of love for others. I am genuinely sorry that I never actually thanked him for these kindnesses, although they are not forgotten.

In later years, my grandfather wore a handlebar mustache that he would occasionally curl with pomade, most frequently on Sundays or when he came to my parents’ house on Saturday afternoons. Having made trips out west with my grandmother, he gravitated towards turquoise belt buckles and Native American patterns. He always wore a kangol cap and had one to match every outfit, much like my father does. He enjoyed tinkering with cars, and frequently got grease on his Sunday clothes because he insisted on spending time out in his garage after church.
I suppose I add these details for a reason, although I didn’t consciously register them until now:
On my second date with my husband, we went to see The World’s Fastest Indian, a dramatization of New Zealander Burt Monroe’s record setting land speed run on Utah’s Salt Flats. When we met, my husband referred to himself as a “gearhead,” who was interested in all things automotive. Therefore, a movie about a figure he recognized, shown at a place that screened excellent, unconventional films sounded like a good idea. (Incidentally, we chose the film together by sending potential links back and forth until we happily decided on the one we sat in that night). And what drew me to that particular movie? Well, I imagined it had to be worthwhile, since it featured Anthony Hopkins and because…it involved Indian motorcycles, which I knew was the only thing my grandfather ever rode.

Now, later that night, I had an event to go to, an event I figured I could still get to before the night was over. I’d paid $85 for a ticket (as my husband recently found out and was shocked by because he found the old ticket in a pile of papers that came out of my truck). The event was a mix-and-mingle where younger New Yorker and Tin House editors would share drinks and conversation with those attending the now defunct 412 festival. It was, at the time, a significant event for me. But I remember sitting in the Harris Theater and having a strange and sudden feeling wash over me. I was surprised to find that I didn’t really care about the editorial mix so much anymore, whether I got there that night was immaterial. What did matter to me was what was happening at that moment. I remember thinking: Savannah, this man next to you, this is a good man. He’s a man like your dad, a man like your grandpa. This is more important.

So when Burt Monroe dropped two of his doctor-prescribed nitro tablets into the motorcycle’s gas tank and headed to the starting point on the land speed track, I forgot about that 412 party, and I grabbed this man’s hand. And when I unconsciously started squeezing it as the speed climbed and the skin on poor Burt’s face started rippling backward, this man squeezed back. This was a confirmation. We were married ten months later. So, was my grandfather in the seat to my left, offering me this sage advice, advice I certainly listened to? (Advice I am thankful for every day.)

I would say yes. Without hesitation, yes, I think it’s very possible.


  1. Very nice, Vanny! Interesting history there. :-D

  2. Thanks, B!!!! So great to see you here!!!
    :) S