Getting to Know Howard

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:

Howie in 1928 Crop

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.

Howie & Plenty

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.





23 thoughts on “Getting to Know Howard

  1. I can relate to the above as a mystery of my GGF coming from Genoa at 17 years old,travel in the 1840 was not like now…it still remains a mystery that i would like to solve.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly what learning about our ancestors feels like, Mary – trying to solve a mystery. I didn’t know your GGF came from Genoa, my GGF, Antonio Craviotto also came from Genoa.


  2. Luv this. Reminds me of all my work that I have done in genealogy. It is good to understand our ancestors and your answer in regards to your grandpa is profound and insightful.


  3. Reading this made me emotional…..Darlene, I wish I could articulate a fraction of how you describe your feelings and interest in your ancestors that you have never met. You are blessed in that way ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Our grandfather. A mystery. I had always assumed he was painting inside the tall terminal on scaffolding when he fell. In the pictures of him on the beach I see my own father, Howard, Another mystery. Funny that we came from people who kept their lives, longings and histories veiled is shrouds of secrecy. When I found our Grandmother Ursula’s death certificate in my parent’s cupboard, my Mom was aghast and told me never to tell my father that I saw it. The cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver. Our parents lives were hard and sad and fraught with poverty and alcoholic parents.
    I guess we are the rebound generation. I shine the light on all the dark in my life in hopes of healing myself and others. It has helped me reconcile abuse that otherwise would have festered. My light survives and thrives.
    Darlene, I’m glad we used our voices to create beauty out of what could have become despair. We do carry on their stories. In us they can find their better selves free to express and heal.
    Your Cousin Nancy


  5. With wet eyes and a light smile, understanding again and again, how similar we are in our different lives…thank you dear Darlene. Tomorrow would be a special day for my grandparents, who were fighting and have been forced labourers in the country, where I live now…. I’m gonna plant some flowers with my son and look through the old photos…to make my mark…

    from Berlin, with loving greetings from

    Liked by 1 person

  6. All that we don’t know is also fascinating, if that’s possible–what we think we see in old photos (yours are priceless!), for instance. Our old family photos always stir my imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The unknown is a magnet for the creative soul. It brings out my need to make order out of the disorder, I think. What’s interesting to me is the pull these old photographs have on me now and how I mostly ignored them while growing up. I wonder if that’s the case with most people. Maybe we are so busy growing up, putting our own lives on track and trying to keep them running smoothly, that we don’t have the time to look at people from the past.


  7. Wow. I am blown away. What a wonderful essay. And like you, I never knew any of my grandfathers. Which makes me sad, because I have not been the best grandfather. I try, but it’s always been a struggle.

    I spend many hours a week doing genealogical research, wondering about my familial strangers who lived before me.

    Gonna keep coming back to your blog. You have a wonderful voice.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Grandparenting comes with its own set of challenges, but that’s probably a topic for another blog post. What’s important is that you “try” – that’s the best any one of us can do. Thank you for reading the post and for your kind words, Jeremy.


  8. Oh my Darlene, what a lovely piece you have written – your gift with words touches me as well as so very many others. It always struck me that there was so much information spoken of related to Charlie’s family and so little mention of Georgetta’s. However, same with my family – many mysteries. Love the photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Kerry! When one family has lived for so
      many generations in one town I think it’s easy for that family to be the dominant one. But my mother never seemed interested in spending time with her family. We visited her brother once a year, that’s all.


    • Unfortunately, it’s been a long time between blogs. Life has a way of interrupting our. Reactive pursuits at times. Also, I was busy writing a play and I find I can only work on one project at a time. Thanks for coming by and leaving a comment!


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