So this post will be insanely long. I don't normally write nonfiction but have had this idea for a long time now. I want to write a book, Lessons on Being a Man: Shit I Learned from My Dad. The most recent writing prompt on the site I frequent was to write a letter to a dead person that was in your life. So it inspired this first of all. My dad is still alive but this has to do with my Great Grandfather on my mother's side and their relationship. I was like, to hell with this letter shit! But then this got out of control and hit over three thousand words. So I stored it for when I finally get to that nonfiction thing. This is the longest thing I have ever posted here and I apologize as I could have just put the link but felt, why not? This is raw and unedited because it opened old wounds and I can't go back and reread it right now. So there might be bits of emails and web conversations in here even, if I typed them in the wrong screen. :) Anyway, there you go.
Also... I did write the letters the prompt wanted. If you want to read the letters to my Grandfather (not the one mentioned here) and/or Robin Williams (in my life even though I was not in his) you can do so here. http://patrickelliottwrites.blogspot.com/ One will probably make you sad and the other may upset you. I gotta be me as I'm the only one I really answer to at the end of the day though.
Two Great Men
Most of the lessons I learned about how to be a man in a culture and generation where most males are little boys in grown men’s bodies came from father. I was lucky though, in that I did not lack for strong male role models. I may talk about the others later, my uncle Victor, my maternal grandfather Dale, my paternal grandmother’s husband Ernie. They all had an impact on who I became. If there is one man who can be given almost as much credit as my father it is my great grandfather Victor. Yes, two Victors, one named for the other. This is a story of a lesson I learned from my father because of grampa Victor. We still love you and miss you, your legacy lives on through those of us you touched.
A little background on grampa Victor, a little more on my father, and how the two related. My great grandfather was raised in those times when you did for yourself and yours. He was a deeply religious man, brutally intelligent, and softly stubborn. He had a way of relating to people, of imparting wisdom to them so they were steered in the direction of grandad’s thoughts. They knew it was happening but he never took their choice away, he just taught them lessons and they knew in their heart they had been touched by a shaman. Everybody loved him because that was just who he was. This I perhaps best illustrated by what the priest, a man much younger than him who was also his friend, said about him at his funeral. I will never forget these words.
“We are all sad that Victor is gone, but through our faith in eternal life we know he is not really gone. We know he is in heaven, sitting next to God and looking down at all of us, all of humanity. He sees it all then looks at God and says, ‘So this is what I think you did wrong.’”
The idea that a priest could envision my great grandfather gently correcting God without being cast down and smote was a powerful one that never left me. I did not completely understand why it was so powerful then, I just understood that it made me smile in the middle of my grief, but I get it now. That is in many ways the man he was.
When grampa Victor met my great grandmother Mary he was on his way to seminary and she had a boyfriend. No, I’m not kidding. He was ready to graduate and head straight off to priest school, and he would have been an amazing holy man. That was his dedication to the church. Then he saw this young woman and fell in love. Anyone who says love at first sight doesn’t happen never met them, because they lasted, her longer than him which surprised us all. So he saw this woman that God had put in his path and abandoned his dreams of being a priest to court her because he knew that was what he was supposed to do. I will note that when his oldest daughter met her future husband she was on a date with his friend and went out with my grampa Dale because she liked how he smelled. I guess that whole thing may be a tradition. Anyway, grampa Victor courted this woman, she gave up her boyfriend and went on to happily ever after. He never regretted it but his faith stayed strong. The main reason I went through my Confirmation (a Catholic sacrament in your teens or twenties where you reaffirm your baptism, accept and are accepted by the church and then never return to mass except on holidays or if you have young children) was because I knew his deep love of the church and that he would want me to do so.
So they had children. One of them ended up with MS in the days before it was manageable. She ended up bed ridden, unable to communicate, her husband and children in another state while she was being cared for by her parents who were by then on social security. She is the main reason we thing gramma Mary survived him for so long, because she had a daughter to care for. That was also who they were. Oh I have so many stories about my great grandmother in her later life, including when she got dementia and used to try to call Victor to come pick her up because she wanted to go home. This isn’t about that though. Mostly I just wanted to say they had kids.
Grampa Victor never gave up his ideas of service and teaching. So he wasn’t a priest but he could still be a scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts. So he did that, even after his son was out of it and I believe before he was in it. So one of the things the scouts do is camp. Most of the time, outside of summer camp and winter camp this is done on public camping grounds.
Now my great grandparents happened to own a piece of property out of the city that had a cabin on it with cold running water and no electricity. It had a couple of wood stoves and a propane model as well. However the cabin was not used for those excursions but the property was. He took his troop up there and they camped. It is worth noting this land was pretty big so they could go out into the woods where nobody could even see the cabin.
On these trips they cooked together but they had a tradition. Grampa Victor and the other troop leaders would pull over at a five and dime on the way up. He would line them up outside and tell them, ‘We’re going inside. Each of gets to buy two candy bars that you can have whenever you want this weekend.’ Then he took them inside and they bought their candy. Now I’m not sure if everyone had money from their parents and this was arranged in advance, or if he gave them all money, or if he just made up the difference for those who did not have enough. What I know is this was the tradition and each boy came out with two bars. They belonged to him and he could have them whenever he wanted during the weekend. I know they also did the traditional stuff like roasting marshmallows, smores, and tinfoil baked cinnamon apples. So it wasn’t the only sugar during the weekend but it was some of the stuff they could have on their own and under their control.
So one day there is this new boy in the troop. His family has a lot of money and he is, to say it politely, a bit spoiled. The troop makes their stop, gets their instructions and go to town. This boy comes out with not two candy bars but a bag full of them. Grampa informs him that’s more than two and the boy is unapologetic in the extreme. So grampa takes his bag, dumps it out, I am assuming on the hood of his vehicle but it might have been a backpack. He says something about how much candy is there. This is greeted with more agreement from the boy. Grampa Victor says, “Pick your three candy bars.” The new kid complies, apparently thinking he’s getting three and even having to give up so much he still has a better deal than the other boys, and well it’s just money after all. So he greedily chooses three and is smiling at getting away with something. Then grampa pulls the other boys over and puts them in a line. He tells them to pick a candy bar and thank the new boy. He does this with the entire troop until each boy has three and they go about their weekend. Which is a story that told me he was a great and amazing man committed to fairness and order and the spirit of the rules but not the letter, he wasn’t a man to waste things since he lived through the Great Depression after all. Thinking on it though I realize that while he was completely American my grampa Victor was also a bit of a communist and thus for his time a rabble-rouser. He’s still one of my idols. I stuck through boy scouts, even when I wanted to quit and I made Eagle for him. When I received it my speech mostly consisted of thanking him and there was not a dry eye in the house, most especially mine. I still missed him than and still miss him now.
So, anyway. When my mom and dad got married everyone in her family hated him. There were three exceptions in the blood relations. My uncle Victor who was friends with my father either from before they started dating or during that time, I am still not sure which, grampa Victor and gramma Mary. When the rest of the family got all up in arms and said this marriage couldn’t happen grampa Victor, the undeniable patriarch of the clan, stared them down and told them all to shut up. I’m not sure if he used those words but my understanding is he was much harsher than his normal persona. He told them all that my mother loved my father and it was none of their business and welcomed my father into the family. Through their marriage the others, except for my mother’s parents and a couple of spoiled rotten apples, grew to accept my father. Those three exceptions were special though, they were closer to him than anyone. In a lot of ways they were closer to him than his own family.
My father’s dad committed suicide when dad was still youngish. That’s the reason that even though he was a marine he did not go to Vietnam and did not die on Hamburger Hill. Grandad Elliott was also an alcoholic and an abusive father. Dad loved him but there were scars. He never accepted the man who married his mother as a father figure so I guess he craved one. Grampa Victor became that. He was a friend and mentor to my father. I saw it, and it was a special relationship. My dad loved that man with all his heart and it was beautiful.
I was a freshman in high school when grampa Victor died. It took no less than four massive heart attacks to kill him. He survived throat cancer and some other really bad shit before then, but his heart gave out. Now understand when I say massive that is how the doctors explained it to us. Heart attacks so large that they normally burst or collapsed the heart in the chest. That’s what I was told. Some of that is probably shock value, we doctors are awesome but we couldn’t save him and your grandfather was an amazing strong man. Not important. Sometimes even in reality the story and the image are more important than the truth.
So he had three of them at home. The ambulance was called and he was rushed to the hospital. He survived those three and was in the bed unconscious. No shitting, the man was clinging to life. Some of my family was there. After she found someone to sit with her daughter, you remember the one with MS who couldn’t move or talk? She got a ride to the hospital, or maybe she drove but I think she had stopped driving by then.
So gramma Mary, a powerhouse of a woman who before she started to shrink with age still never topped out above five feet, or maybe five foot two, marched into that hospital like the Germans invading Russia. She wasn’t taking prisoners, she wasn’t to be denied, and her march was just as doomed. I can only imagine how scared she was, how angry she must have been. I’m sure she was upset with her husband for scaring her and God for allowing it but she had business to do and love in her heart to levels that I wish more people had. Maybe she wasn’t angry with either of them but I know I would have been.
So she strides into the room, and I have confirmation on this because multiple family members were there. She stands up straight and looks at her unconscious husband and puts on her sternest voice. She speaks to him in a way nobody really dared, ever, and especially not then. This is what she says to the love her life, the man she would have certainly followed into the ground within six months if she didn’t still have work to do, her fucking soul mate. She says,
“Victor! Enough playing around, it’s time to wake up and go home.”
No shit? Go gramma you pint sized pitbull of a woman. We love and miss you too. Like I said, nobody talked to grampa Victor like that. She had special privileges though. So she says this and he opens his eyes. He smiles at her. He tells her he loves her, still not sure I believe he spoke but again, sometimes the story of our love is more important than the truth. He then proceeds to close his eyes, have another massive heart attack, and dies.
He held on just long enough to say goodbye to his wife. That’s the man he was. He loved his God, he loved his community, he loved service, he loved fairness, and he loved his family. Above it all he loved his wife, the woman he gave up the idea of being a priest for. Of them all she was, in spite of being the kindest most sincere and loving woman I have met in my life, she was kind of the scariest. So I guess I might have held on to say goodbye too. If he hadn’t she’d probably be kicking his ass and denying him sex in heaven to this day.
So there are a lot of lessons in being a man in those words, but that isn’t what this is about. I’ll let you dig those ones out yourself. I’ve left you some signposts. This is about my dad and how he taught me to be a man in many ways without even trying. I have mentioned he loved my great grandfather but that, even in finding your own heroes when you need them most, is not the point of this lesson.
When grampa Victor died my mother and sister were on a camping trip with the Girl Scouts. Yes, we all took our turns in them. It was cheap and important to my family. So it was just me and my dad and my brother, who was still in a carseat as I remember but I could be wrong, at home. We get the call, Victor’s in the hospital, multiple coronary events. Okay, they used the term I used earlier but I’m repeating a lot of words in this story already. My dad tries to call the campground where my mom and sister are. They aren’t near the phone so they don’t answer of course but they are supposed to call back. Somebody is taking them a message.
As soon as he makes the call, like less than fifteen minutes later, we get the next call. Grampa Victor is dead. I pass this news along to my father. He bolts up and grabs my brother. I’m old enough to stay home but he has to get to the camp to tell my mother in person and make sure they get home okay. Dad wasn’t the only one who loved grampa Victor with all of his heart. Everyone did, and as his oldest grandchild my mother and him had a very strong connection. It didn’t hurt that she went over and helped with my great aunt all of the time either. My dad new the affect this news was going to have on my mother. So I guess there is a lesson there, sometimes a man has to do what needs doing and sometimes he has to do it alone, but it’s still not the point.
So off they go. I’m alone, one of my heroes is dead, one of my giants is gone. He was old but I never would have expected it to happen. I’m trying to watch TV but I just don’t care. I’m trying to read but I just don’t care. Nothing is holding my interest because grampa Victor is dead. I’m holding it together pretty well though. I’m a little man and some tears slip out but not many.
Now my dad drives fast normally and like a demon is after him when there is an emergency he is dealing with. There’s a story about that somewhere else here. But this camp was hours away. My mother calls while I’m numb to the world. She got the message and dad hasn’t got there yet. So I tell her dad is on the way and I start to choke up. She coaxes out of me the news. I told my mother over the phone that the person everyone in the family loved, even the ones who hated each other is gone. Then I broke down and shed tears to rival the floods that would occur if the world’s biggest dam broke.
So life went on. I don’t remember much after that except hating crying and my mom telling me it was okay. My father had told me men didn’t cry. This is something he later told me was, “complete bullshit and I’m sorry I taught you that both in my words and how I was.” Even he never told me to stop it. If grampa Victor didn’t deserve some manly tears then nobody did. Still, he held it all in. He was sad, he was angry, but he didn’t cry. Until he did.
At the funeral my dad lost his composure. He cried, silently, in the pew next to me. He hated doing it. I saw him get angry. When I told him it was okay to cry for this he told me it wasn’t, that it was okay for me but he didn’t cry. His eyes told me a different story. His eyes spoke of love, respect, and loss. His actions taught me it was okay to feel, even the bad stuff.
So there is a basic lesson here. The lesson that sometimes men cry. That it is okay to be vulnerable and to love. That’s the easy lesson though, and we all know it even if we believe and/or espouse something different. It is the lesson I took away then, in my mind. Like many of the things my dad taught me there is something deeper that I took away in my heart. The lesson I learned but didn’t understand then but I do now.
That lesson is this. There is always an exception. No matter how deep your conviction, how hard and fast the rule, how steadfastly you hold the belief there is always an exception. In my father’s mind men did not cry, they barely showed emotion. Now I admit I have seen him cry a few times, but not many, since then, but that was the second and the first one was very different and taught me a different lesson. That was the first time I saw him cry that I could remember at the time. He very much believed in that rule about men not doing it. However, he broke it for my great grandfather. He broke it for a man he was not related to by blood but attached to in every other way. There is always a time to bend and break rules, even your own. The important thing is knowing which ones need to be bent, which ones need to be broken, and when it is time to do so. He taught me that a man has to know these things, even if he makes them up on the fly. That some things and some people are worth denying yourself, denying the world, and even looking bad for. I guess that’s a couple of lessons really, but it’s all rolled up into one.
As a man, learn to keep your pride but when it is right defy your ego, even if it makes you look weak to yourself or others. You have to be strong enough to know when those opinions don’t matter. You have to be proud enough to know when it is okay to step outside of your own self definition.