Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Silent Men

One of the oddest reactions I’ve had so far to Brokeback Mountain is the way it's made me think about my maternal grandfather. He and Ennis Del Mar were men cut from the same cloth in many ways. Both worked all their lives at demanding outdoor physical labor, Ennis as a cowboy, my grandfather as a farmer. They shared physical similarities too, both being physically strong but awkward, as if they weren’t entirely at home in their bodies. Above all though, these two were silent men.
Clearly they were both raised in cultures where silence was seen as a virtue, particularly for men, and their work demanded long hours away from human contact. Add to this the fact that my grandfather, Irving Smith, was a Midwestern Quaker and you have many reasons why he might have been a man of few words. It’s worth noting though that even among other Quakers and farmers, Irving was regarded as exceptionally quiet. During their first year of marriage, my grandmother (herself not really given to chatter) wondered if he was angry at her, since months might go by where all he said was "pass the butter."
The fact is I think the biggest thing Ennis Del Mar and Irving Smith shared was a deep misery and a complete inability to talk about it. No, I don’t think Irving was gay. Nor was he completely unemotional. I think he loved his wife Mary, his four children, and many other people. One rare memory I have of interacting with him as a child is when he showed me a photograph of his brother who, dissenting from the Quaker (and presumably family) view, went off to fight in WWII, dying as a fighter pilot. Though I never witnessed this, it was not uncommon for Irving to cry when he spoke in Quaker Meeting. My mother also says he occasionally succumbed to rages (though never physical violence) even going so far on occasion as to swear, breaking a significant Quaker taboo. (The worst thing Grandmother Mary ever said was "oh my stars and garters!" That should give you some idea what it was like when Irving said "hell" or "dammit".) I also saw him laugh on occasion. Over all though, my impression of him was of crippling silence, and strong feeling trapped under the surface, unable to get out.
I can’t really say what the cause was of his misery. One possibility is work. As I understand it, he never really wanted to be a farmer, but ended up doing it when his father-in-law became too sick to run the family operation. It’s not clear to me why it fell to him; Great-Grandfather Emmons had two sons (and an unmarried daughter, though one has to assume no one believed she could handle the farm alone), but I guess they had good reasons not to take it on. Maybe Mary felt compelled to care for her senile father. Maybe she loved the farm, and didn’t want to leave it. Maybe Irving was simply the only man available when the need came. I don’t know how it happened, but for whatever reason, responsibility for Emro Farm fell to Irving and Mary. My mother thinks he had hoped to do relief work, or social activism of some kind, but if there ever had been another plan besides farming, it never materialized. Once he was in, he was in for life. A cruel child at grade school once told my mother "your dad isn’t a very good farmer, you know," presumably parroting something heard at home. This disapproval might have been rooted in the fact that Irving and Mary were the only democrats in the county, or the fact that he had made a very public appeal for the farmers union to protest against WWII. But it’s also possible the statement was true. There seems to be evidence that his heart wasn’t in the job. Was this source of his misery?
I think a life-long depression is another possibility. Irving exhibited many of the signs of clinical depression throughout his life. Several of his descendants have also suffered from it, most of them benefitting from changes in social mores and science that allowed them to get treatment. I wonder sometimes how his life, and the lives of his family members, might have been different if he had been able to seek treatment, but I doubt it was ever really an option. Men (well, at least WASPS) born at the turn of the twentieth century weren’t really supposed to have emotions; if they had them, they weren't supposed to talk about them and certainly weren't supposed to be crippled by them. Quakers probably wouldn’t have been much help either; for them the goal of life was to seek the truth and live by it. Considering the sorry state of the world, a bleak view was probably seen as a sensible response. And if I’m right in thinking that Grandfather’s depression was at least partially inherited, then chances are the men in his life might not have modeled any other way of being.
In his later years I think he found a way to greater emotional expression, at least for him. His groovy California son began insisting on endless hugs; this may cause me to roll my eyes, but to be fair they may have had a positive effect on Irving. More significantly when Grandmother and Grandfather moved to a retirement community, I think they both enjoyed being around lots of people, especially since that included lots of their siblings and old school friends.
Nonetheless I never connected with him in any real way. After Grandmother’s death, he spent two Christmases with my family. I was living in Seattle at the time, and Christmas was often the only chance I got to see my parents and siblings. Time with the Laceys is generally a raucous, noisy, even intemperate affair, so Grandfather’s silent presence (not to mention his disapproval of alcohol) was viewed by all of us, I fear, as mostly a weight on the festivities. Mom got him all his Christmas presents since none of the rest of us had the slightest idea what he might like (another drawback if you never talk). I look back on that occasion with some guilt and a lot of regret. I was in my twenties, certainly old enough that I might have thought to draw him out, ask him stories about his life, just make some small attempt to get to know him better, but it never even occurred to me. He seemed like a known quantity to me, neither of us looking for a change in our relationship.
Could things have been different? Did he regret his life, or did he have the same mix of joy and misery that most of us have? Did he want things to change? Did he even think that was possible? If he had pursued a profession he loved, if he had gotten treatment for depression, would Irving Smith have become a chatterbox? Would he have seemed at home in his body? Would that incredible weight have lifted, that strangled feeling been let loose? Would I have found a way to know him? Seeing Ennis Del Mar is making me sad that I never even tried. As he left after one of his Christmas visits, Grandfather told us "I think I’m only just starting to see how much this visit meant to me." Since Brokeback that statement has been echoing in my head. It seems like he was making an attempt to let us know who was in there. Only now am I wondering what I could have done to reach him.

1 comment:

Rev. AJB said...

Powerful! Ennis was the character I related to the most....