Every family has its characters, its heroes who strike a chord we can connect to, laugh about, wonder how they ever had chutzpah to do this or that. Aunt Lucy, who was institutionalized for eccentric behavior like dancing in the street; Uncle George who vanished under questionable circumstances; the family pariah, Richard, who needed to be kept away from children; the daring, endangered immigrants and what they had to do—lie, cheat, or steal— to survive.
In my family, we grew up with a legend of a more quiet nature. My grandfather, the immigrant philosopher. He died when I was ten so I never really knew him and remember very little. But I do remember, when sitting around the dining room table with my parents, aunts, and uncles, the reminiscence would always contain stories of his brilliant mind, and his disappointments working for a cousin who seemed to always jerk him around.
The only direct link I had to him was through his books. They weren’t the typical reading diet of an immigrant who worked in a paint store and spoke English as a second language. They were classics with notes in the margins, his thoughts written on scraps of paper tucked within the pages.
When my parents were moving, my mother told me she came across a box of letters my grandfather had written to my grandmother everyday when he was working out of town. These letters from 1938-40 filled a big box. There were a couple hundred along with his philosophical writings.
They were a direct road back to him, a way of knowing the man who was the patriarch of a very large family. I poured over the letters, organized them, found a pattern of how he was essentially using his letters as a blog. They were, of course, filled with the typical family chit chat but in every letter there was entry into the thoughts of this private man.
I have written a book of poems, Paternal Nocturne,that gives us a peak into the mind about of a man who suffered silently, loved deeply, and nurtured big American dreams for his family.
The book published by Finishing Line Press will be released in a few weeks and may be purchased through their website (www.finishinglinepress.com) and my own (www.jantramontano.com).
Here are two poems: one my only real memory of him until now; the other his physical legacy.
A Child’s Memory
I liked to watch him eat, separate foods on his plate. Peas were not permitted to touch potatoes. He ate what he didn’t like first.
He spoke little and wore cardigan sweaters. Grandma told me I was the first grandchild he held (I was his fifth of ten) and he spoiled me by patting me to sleep.
I think he scared me. A silent, ghostly presence, who sat on the gray club chair I took with me to college.
He died when I was ten and I was glad. I hated coming home from school to find my mother and grandmother wringing tears from teabags, worn down from their daily hospital vigil as he lay dying.
I was mostly distressed that I was a horrid girl, a girl who wished her princely grandfather dead.
May 4, 1939: I am all by myself in silent meditation reading and conversing with my dear ones, also with the sages of the great past and present who add cheer and encouragement when I am lonely for my home environment.
My shelves are lined with my grandfather’s books:
Five Great Dialogues by Plato
The Complete Works of Charles Dickens
Penguin Island by Anatole France
Thomas Mann’s Stories of Three Decades
Six-volume novels and stories of Ivan Turgenieff
Courts and Criminals: A Discourse on our Criminal Justice System
Selected Tales and Poems by Edgar Allan Poe
Essays, Poems, and Addresses by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Paradise Lost and Other Poems by John Milton
No dime store novels for my Grandpa. No Shalom Aleichem Yiddish stories either. The entire collection in English. I yearn to hear his accented voice read Whitman’s Song of Myself.
I think that we will regret the history lost in our electronic world. The art of letter writing is long gone. We should remember to tell our stories any way we can to honor, to remember, and to feel connected. And most of all, we should find an electronic footprint that won’t disappear with the next technological leap.