Ancestry: An Essay on Remembering

I remember my grandparents well. It seems like only yesterday I was sitting on their porch, watching the reflection of the setting sun in the nearby lake, crimson, sometimes like fire. We used to spend many a summer evening on that porch, the piquant smell of my grandmother’s duck bouillabaisse heavy in the humid air. Whenever I’m close to burning rubber I find myself back there, on that porch. Those were the days.

They were my fraternal grandparents, being that my father was their illegitimate stepson‑in‑law. We have a complicated family tree. In the literal sense, I wasn’t related to them at all, but they kept me around every summer anyway. In the figurative sense, I was closer to them than their own pets.

I enjoyed spending time with them, my grandfather in particular. We would sit on the porch for hours talking. Well, he did most of the talking. All of it, actually, but that’s all right. I got a lot out of what he had to say. He would talk about the good old days, when technology knew its place and forest rangers were still honest. I’ll always remember one lesson in particular.

It was my second summer at their cottage and my grandfather took me aside and said, “Ralph,” obviously mistaking me for one of his imaginary penpals, “I want to impart to you an intricate piece of wisdom handed down from every other generation to every other generation.” Then he broke off into a coughing spasm, to bring the mood to a climax.

“Ben,” he continued, “you can pick your friends, you can set them on fire, but don’t ever let them borrow your hairbrush. That will only bring sorrow.” I’ve lived my life by this simple rule, and believe me, it’s been no picnic.

We went for quite a few walks through the woods around his house, often getting lost for days. After the first time, we quickly learned to bring along copious amounts of my grandmother’s bouillabaisse, as a precaution. We didn’t dare eat it, of course. It was incredibly effective at keeping the field mice at bay.

It was on these walks that he showed me all the trees he played on, and fell out of, as a boy. Then we came upon the trees he had planted as a forest ranger, in the days before the ugly “Thumper” incident, which lost him his job, his honor, and his left index finger. On trying to find our way back, he pointed out all the trees that he had cut down in building his porch and, for the most part, the Eiffel Tower. The fact that the trees he was talking about were still standing didn’t seem to bother him, so I didn’t let it bother me either.

I learned a lot from that man. He taught me the names of all the trees, like Elm, Birch, and Craig. He showed me how to hunt a deer armed with nothing but a box of breakfast cereal. He trained me in the time‑honored tradition of scaring the Hell out of campers.

Most importantly, he taught me how to be a man. Not a good one, but a man all the same.

I’ll never forget those summers, or that porch. Thinking back, it wasn’t so much a porch as it was their entire house. But then it was more of a gazebo. One year the town’s philharmonic orchestra was supposed to come out and play, but the three of them got lost and didn’t arrive until well past dawn.

In the evenings, I would sit out on the porch, or whatever it was, waiting for another perfect sunset, listening to my grandfather telling me all he knew of the corruption in the adult diaper industry and watching my grandmother throw the laundry to the field mice.

Tragically, my grandfather died one day. Before dying, he told me that he wanted to be remembered and that I should tell of his exploits. After he died, he told me of his death, a valiant and noble one.

What a man he certainly was.

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