For My Grandmother
Once upon a time in 1924… my Grandmother, Peggy Marie was born in the small Texas town of Rising Star, Texas. As far as I understand, she lived most of the year somewhere in the Fort Worth area and spent summers on her grandparent’s farm in the aforementioned Rising Star. Sometime in during the Second World War, she was working in one of the mechanical positions allotted to so many women when the grand majority of men had been funnelled out to fill apparent soldier shortages, perhaps in drafting or design, when she met my Grandfather, Otis. I have never met my Grandfather because he died in 1972, but from what I understand he was incredibly charismatic, notably tall, and as it is often said of a good salesman, had the ability to “sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo.” The story of their courtship is the substance of a truly by-gone era for the most part: She was nineteen, he was 30, they eloped to Las Vegas (mind you this is years before there was ANY development whatsoever, when it was really and truly a one horse town), and continued to stay married until his death. I suppose in those days college education was not the banal standard for success that it is today, and thus with nothing more than his aforementioned fridge/Eskimo sales charisma he gained a job with Carnrick Pharmaceutical, where he would eventually become Vice President. Incidentally, he was also an amazing piano player, and in the days before high security and celebrity obsession once knocked on Bing Crosby’s door to seek help in finishing a song. As I understand, he was obliged.
One problem (or perk, depending on your point of view) of working as a sales representative is that it requires one to move a lot, and thus their little family nucleus (which soon contained my mother and aunt) was relocated several times across the United States before finally settling in New Jersey. Now I will make my blanket New Jersey defence: New Jersey is one of the most amazing places in the entire world, and I honestly believe that it receives quite an unfair amount of flack, regarding its lack of spectral beauty and the like. I will whole-heartedly concede that certain areas of New Jersey (ie. The industrial areas of Newark highly visible to travellers passing through Newark International Airport) are completely horrendous in appearance, and a total environmental sin, but labelling the entire state of New Jersey as an “industrial wasteland” based upon these isolated areas is rather akin to dubbing Paris an “eyesore” because of “all the fucking dogshit.” New Jersey contains some of the most beautiful and lush farmland I have ever seen.
Place is a very important thing for me, or rather, as I have written about before the nostalgia that results from an association of memory with place is something that for me is so overpowering that I almost can’t handle it. Sometimes the nostalgia arises from something I personally have never experienced, it’s something historical, a double thread of memory and loss that rips through me in certain parts of the world, usually certain corners of the world. And usually when it’s quiet, and for a moment a totally average street corner becomes deserted and you are suddenly keenly aware of the fact that at some point somebody conducted a totally average act in this very location, most likely en route to another point in the particular curve of her/his life; and let’s face it, everybody has a story, right? It’s also entirely possible that in this same location something far more epic took place: a death in any circumstance, a political rally, a brilliant piece of public art…. Anything. Either way, there have to be moments when nothing is happening, when it is practically silent, and in that practical silence you feel the negative space left by a lack of action, you feel the weight of other people’s lives.
My Grandmother’s house in New Jersey is very much one of these places for me. When I was a very young baby my older brother was violently opposed to my existence, and thus as a kind of temporary peace-accord, I went to live with just my Grandmother in this very house. She had no crib, and so put together two straw patio seats and made one that way, and as far as I can remember we lived wonderfully for a season in the little green house. Perhaps I refer to it as the green house because the feature that is most notable to me is the carpeting. Avocado shag carpeting may sound like an early seventies nightmare, but for me it was perfect. I remember the individual “shags” as such on the shag carpeting being about as thick as pencils, though I’m fairly positive that if I were to examine them now I would be slightly disappointed. In addition to the lush, plant-esque flooring, each room contained a different brightly colored wallpaper (vines with seasonal fruit, jungle-like stalks of bamboo with thick and nearly psychedelic leaves, twilight blue with small oil-painted flowers), the likes of which would never have been seen in my parents ultra-modern décor.
My favorite room, however, was the attic. Particularly during the early stages of my permanent sixties obsession, I would spend hours locked in the tiny attic, thumbing through anything and everything- photographs, report cards, every major paper from the day that JFK was killed- and wish that somehow through osmosis I could fuse the essence of that bygone era through the pores in my skin, somehow permanently retain that marvellous odor which is particular to old objects. In the years to come I would see these old objects eventually thinned out and redistributed, starting with the sale of the house. At a point it became evident that my Grandmother was not able to completely care for herself anymore, and my mother and aunt were forced to move her to a nearby apartment complex where other seniors in similar conditions (still basically fully able, yet marginally forgetful) all lived as neighbors. This was probably a huge blow because it represented an obvious loss of freedom. As my uncle Al said to me the other day, “Your grandmother Peggy is a tough old bird,” and that she was. Perhaps when I consider her that way I am able to understand that she is in fact a native Texan. Texas has some of the roughest vegetation and wildlife available on the market today, and this is because everything that has survived there has had to fight, it has had to struggle to rise up and live. The people are the same. If we were in the carport at my parents’ house and suddenly a tarantula was spotted, my siblings, mother and I would erupt in shrill screams, but my Grandmother would pick up her favorite brick, the one in the south east corner of the room, and march swiftly over and engage in a very brief and fatal battle with the animal. She lived alone from the death of my Grandfather in 1972 until she was forced to move out of her house about eight years ago.
As she was relocated to different homes and cities over the last several years, I witnessed the objects from her home decrease in number and even managed to obtain a few of them. Two days ago I was in her room in Chicago and noticed that only two or three of the originals remained- the curved Captain’s mirror, the antique dresser, the jade flowers… My mother received a phone call this past Wednesday, just as we were about to leave for tour, that she had finally stopped eating and only had a few days to live. I went to Chicago to say goodbye, an organized goodbye for somebody who is dying. When I entered the room the image of her contrasted the peaceful sight I had imagined. If you have never seen somebody fighting death, it is a very haunting sight. Maybe she was waiting for us to come, I don’t know. Her breathing was so hard a violent and she did not have the power to open her eyes. I was given some time alone with her, which I tried to use to its maximum, but there’s not much to be said at that point, especially if one can only hear and not respond. Eventually I had to leave and tried to catch the last flight to Dallas for the first night of the tour, resulting in a miraculous two song Voxtrot set. At the time it felt very heroic but in later reflection I might have stayed on in that bizarre corner of the world in which somebody’s life is slipping away and people are gathered to try and understand the fact.
She died yesterday afternoon. Apparently, when she died, she opened her eyes very suddenly (a common occurrence), seemed to take everything in, and then was gone. I wish I had been there to be taken in.
I know I haven’t actually said very much about her (my Grandmother) as a person, but this is the aesthetic approach to understanding. Build a history from objects. She was indeed a wonderful woman- she was more like a second mother than a grandmother, but these are things that only I need to know. All I can really think about in the public realm is actually process of the death, or the loss, because that’s a shared experience to which nobody is immune. No matter how scientific or practical you are, there is something else there, something we do not have the language for, something we cannot decode. There is a reason people have the look of taking everything in before they go away permanently, as such.
When I received the news by phone we were driving through a particularly icy extension of Oklahoma. I announced the event to the other band members and then attached my headphones to try and recede into myself, perhaps to try and foster the right kind of sadness that would provide accurate catharsis, but that environment is not the appropriate time or place. When is that time and where is that place? I sat pondering this and looking out the window, as repetitive stretches of dirty slush and highway slid by. Suddenly we zoomed onto a bridge, and were cutting across one of those terrifying and majestic lakes, that is dark in response to the overcast sky and stretches slightly out of possible view. This is always an arresting vision, partially because it’s beautiful, and partially because the thought of being lost in that expanse is one of the most haunting prospects imaginable. Suddenly I was reminded of the fact that nature is very powerful, and that there things that stretch beyond the human field of vision, things that are too vast to digest and understand.
In a way it’s like a form of tangible wonder, and I suppose it provides a little comfort, in the sense that it is inevitably consuming.