Your elders

They make you what you are. Or they try to. Or they don’t really care. Think about the influence of the elders in your life. You look back and recognize those influential people. Do this, do that. Do it my way. Do it your way. The influence could be positive or negative. There’s learning, there’s conflict and negotiation, there’s resolution. On this topic you look at some of those influential people and recall vivid moments and events, capturing those.

I. Start with an easy/hard one, a parent or grandparent, someone who put a lot of themselves into you.

My dad held out his hand for me to shake and said, “Godspeed, son.”

We were standing next to the gas pump at what he had called “the bulk plant,” down on 5th Street, next to the railroad track. It was the place where all the gasoline, regular and premium, and all the heating oil, #1 and #2, were stored in giant white tanks mounted on concrete saddles above the ground. At the edge of the drive was the pump house I had entered a hundred times to source the product, gas or fuel oil, and engaged the pump, and the six wooden steps to the the dock I had climbed a hundred times to load the truck for deliveries; and hard by the pumphouse and tanks the warehouse I had wandered through a hundred times, inhaling the smell of motor oil and gearlube and the pungent odors of insecticides and herbicides he stored during his farm spray days, where he kept his tools.

II. It takes a village.  So the saying goes. Recall some of the elders that populate your youth.  When possible, say a few things about them. 


Next door to our house on Main Street were the Gauls. Dean was a year younger than me. We were fast friends. His father was the town pharmacist, at Barbarin Drug. Later I would think this was barbarian drug. Fred was quiet and gentle, a lot older than my parents. He was always behind the counter in the back of the store. This was an old style drug store with a soda fountain in front, a counter with five short pedestal stools. We bought phosphates, which was a drink with a short of syrup–I recall only cherry–and a blast of carbonated water. You bought a 10 cent, 15 cent, or 25 cent phosphate. Mrs. Maxwell set it in front of you, in a clear Coca-cola glass, and stirred it with a long spoon. She was tall and handsome, with short black hair that was graying, and wore a blue-green smock. She was an authority figure, too, even more than Fred. You didn’t mess around in the store. Meryl was watching. And she knew your parents.

III. Get religion. Get something. Get out there in the world. As a kid you enter a wider social world through institutions. Your elders populate this world. It could be church, it could be sports, it could be hunting. You’re introduced to a value system and take it on, learning about sin, learning to be competitve, learning to be in nature with a firearm or a fishing pole.

So many uncles. On my mother’s side: Uncle Bob (Zona), Uncle Clare (Alva), Uncle Bill (US Army), Uncle Don (Gerry), Uncle Vernon (Mattie), Uncle Allen (Mary); and her sister Jean’s husband, Uncle Junior (for Hartley Davis, Jr.). On my father’s side, one brother, one uncle: Uncle Stanley (Ann). So many uncles, so little contact. 

On my mother’s side, we were not close. It was a matter of distance and religion. More religion that distance. Once a year at the McVety family reunion, down in Pontiac, a 90 minute drive from Freeland, we saw them all, all at once.  And there were a lot of them to see. Those uncles sired big families, so there was somewhere in the area of 40 cousins to see, among them 3-4 sets of twins. The uncles saw me and my brother and said, inevitably, “Now which one are you?” And we saw them, and the kindly (and probably weary) aunts, and said, inevitably, “Now which one are you?” Ditto with the cousins. At least most of them. 

IV. Getting off the straight and narrow. You get older and want to do things your way. The adhesives that bind you to your elders weaken. You question authority. You make your declarations of independence. How did independence look to you? Where did you find it? Who did you join there? Tell a few stories about transgression, about entering the risky world out there.

Before the big one, before the crash that put me in the hospital for three weeks, I was in three car crashes soon after I started driving. 

In twelfth grade I drove a ‘65 VW. On my way to school one winter morning, I was lighting a cigarette while I drove. I was on Church Street. The road was a sheet of ice that morning. The guys I hung out with had all mastered the skill of opening a book of matches with one hand, bending one match in half and scratching it against the little gray strip with their thumb to light the match, then lifting the whole pack toward their faces to light their cigarette. On this morning, holding the steering wheel with my left hand, I was attempting to execute this maneuver with my right hand. I bent the match over, scratched it, glancing up at the road as I did so. It took two or three scratches.