I didn’t know my mother’s father.
It’s always been hard to call him what he was to me: grandfather. I guess that’s because I never really knew him – Howard Joseph Graham died nine years before I was born. He was always just a memory – my mother’s memory, and she didn’t share that memory with us a lot.
I knew how he died – a fall from scaffolding while painting the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound bus station at night. Mom had just had dinner with him, with her brother, mother, and her Uncle Jody, who was on the same job with her father. The accident must have happened soon in their shift because it seemed as though they had just said goodbye and headed downtown from Highland Park before there was a knock at the door, and Uncle Jody was back, in tears with the news. Why they were painting at night, I never asked, so I guess I will never know that answer – my mother took that with her when she passed away a year ago today at the age of 93.
Mom and I had a lot of years to talk about Howard Graham, and I guess I could have asked her that question, about why he was painting at night, in the dark, but she was always a little quiet about him, teary-eyed at his mention, with a catch in her throat if she did share a little bit here and there. I knew not to ask her too many questions, because it made her sad, and now today I’m left with no answers and so many whys.
Here is everything I know about Howard Joseph Graham:
He liked to drink San Miguel beer and smoke cigarettes. When my mother had earaches (and she had a lot of them) he would blow smoke into her ear, and the warmth would comfort her. Other times, he could be strict, and if Mom and her brother didn’t clean the dishes properly, and Howard came home from a night out and found them not to his liking, he’d wake up his two kids and make them clean the dishes all over again, no matter how late it was. Howard was a house painter. The family was poor – my mother used to have to spray pieces of cardboard black and slip them into her shoes to cover up the holes at the bottom of her soles so she could walk to her Catholic School, even in the rain. She grew up during the Depression and maybe that’s why Howard was out of work so much. I don’t know much more about the man except he couldn’t eat mayonnaise – it made him sick just as it does me. He was Irish, proud of being a Graham, and that his mother was a Quinn, his grandmother a Cassidy. His Irish roots must have meant the world to him because they did to Mom. There was no happier day for her than St. Patrick’s when she would dress up all in green, send Irish-themed Hallmark cards to all of our family, with her signature, “Molly Malone.” Irish music played non-stop on our stereo while the scent of corned beef boiling on the stove filled our house. Mom’s love for all-things-Irish was so strong I always wondered if Howard was from Ireland.
“Canada,” my Mom said. “He was born in Kingston, Ontario.”
More than those few facts she never told me.
There are photographs, of course, but only a few. This is the one I like the most:
He’s laying in the sand at one of the beaches near Los Angeles. There’s something sad and brooding about him, introspective; it’s not the kind of look you might expect to see someone wearing who’s at the beach. It makes me think he might have been creative – like me, a brooder, always thinking, and I find a commonality there in this photo of a stranger who was my grandfather. Maybe he was a painter, not just of houses and businesses, maybe he was a real artist. My grandmother used to paint, I have some of her watercolors. She’s the woman in this other photo with Howard – Ursula Maloney Graham. Also Irish.
Howard looks like a famous movie director, or screenwriter, with his aviator sunglasses and open vest. But he’s still not smiling. There’s an uncertainty lurking there – about his future, maybe? Or is he just a man lost in an alien country, not yet a citizen, an immigrant, a foreigner in a strange place he now has to call his home.
Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, “…the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed.”
I read this passage in Orlean’s book the other night and it made me think of Howard Joseph Graham. I underlined it because it hit me me so hard, such a bleak interpretation of what it means to be alive. With no memories of my grandfather, how can I be sure that he ever made his “mark on the world”? Seemingly, he was an ordinary man, and how do those of us who live ordinary lives make any mark at all? And what exactly does it mean to make “our mark?”
If we’re lucky, maybe that mark means our children. They get to live on, and they take us with them, whether they like it or not. You can’t fight DNA – in the line of an eyebrow, or the curve of lips, the color of our eyes, the shape of our body, or whether we can tolerate mayonnaise or not. The memories of all those who lived before us are a part of us, ingrained somewhere deep inside or revealing themselves there on our face, even if we don’t recognize it; and those from the past, whether we have memories of them or not, become the future. The future we will never see, except in our dreams, or if we’re lucky, in the faces of our grandchildren.
I know very little about who Howard Joseph Graham was, or who he wanted to be, but I still wonder. I still have questions. I still search. I’m curious and I want to learn more. And maybe that curiosity and wanting to find answers is what my grandfather left me.
That’s his mark on the world.