Much of my family history is, to me, a vague bunch of names and dates, people I don’t have a whole lot of contact with, or never met in my life. I’ve gotten more interested in my kinfolk as I’ve gotten older—I think it’s something that comes with the realization that one isn’t 19 forever, and it hits sometime around the second year of mortgage payments. That time in life when one’s friends are all recent parents, and the people we used to shut the bars down with are now on the PTA board.
My grandfather is nearing 90 years old. He’s a retired housepainter. In his prime, he used to load a panel van full of supplies and drive from the Finger Lakes region of New York to Manhattan on Sunday night, at a time when highways didn’t exist. He painted houses in the city from Monday until Friday. Then, he’d load the van back up and return home to his family, and spend the weekend repairing a 100-year-old farmhouse with no insulation or running water, only to turn around and do it again. He has always been a commanding sort of man, the kind of septuagenarian who could still kick ass and play a mean round of golf, even when his backswing was reduced from feet to inches. I remember wiry, ropy muscles in his arms, under a short-sleeve shirt, hoisting my cousins for a tour of the barn. I remember cookouts in the side yard, with he and my grandmother holding court by the Coca-Cola cooler, and cars lined up four deep in front of the house. I remember huddling around the heat registers in the bedroom upstairs, quietly listening to my aunts and uncles tell jokes in the smoky kitchen below. I remember my grandparents full of life, and that’s how I’ll always keep them in my memory.
The last time Jen and I visited with my grandfather, I realized how little I really know about him and my own family. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a picture of my namesake (I am the Fourth.) Travelling in Ireland last year, it became painfully clear to me that I don’t know where my people came from, or when they arrived. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help Jen’s father get his family history archived, going as far as humping computer equipment to a reunion and scanning every photo album. I haven’t spent nearly enough time with my own family, nor do I know nearly as much about us as I should.
I hatched a plot with my father a few months ago, and got his help in planning for a trip north to sit with my grandfather and talk to him about his family. He has shoeboxes full of photos and reels of 8mm film that may or may not have seen the light of day since the Truman administration. He has letters and pictures and most importantly, his memory to tell the stories behind the pictures, and put faces with names. And luckily for me, as I worked more on this plan, the pieces fell into place faster and easier that I could have hoped.
I mentioned the plan to a friend of mine, purely by chance—I was discussing scheduling for some freelance work. Graciously, he lent me the use of a very expensive professional digital video camera, two very expensive lavalier microphones, and a matching tripod. Junior and Senior will get mic’d, and my father will guide his father through the pictures, getting stories and faces and people straight while I scan and archive everything I possibly can.
We’re heading up there at 9AM tomorrow, and I’m told Grampy has been telling everybody about it excitedly. He’s been instructed by his daughters to shave, wear his good shirts, and behave himself. I’m as excited as he is—there are a ton of questions to ask, and I’m anxious to hear the answers.