I wrinkled my brow the first time I heard grandma say that granddad liked to ride his hobbyhorse when he had a bee in his bonnet. And I’m certain my bovine stare was a dead giveaway that I found it troubling to imagine him wearing anything but a felt fedora while riding a horse named Hobby. Years later, after I had lots of time to remember, I figured out what she meant.
When granddad returned from town, he almost always got out of the truck mumbling. But he’d stop when he came in the house. He’d get quiet, sit in his chair and look out the window until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Then he’d motion with his head for me to follow him down to the barn, or over to the garden. And when we were far enough away from the house that grandma couldn’t hear us, he’d commence to riding his hobbyhorse.
“Doug, has the whole world gone mad?”
That was his favorite question, but I knew it wasn’t a question, and I knew he didn’t want an answer. It was like the flickering lights at a Broadway play. It was a signal to be quiet and listen.
“We ignore our children, while they isolate themselves from the family. Then we send ‘em to some therapist, who doesn’t know shit from Shinola about membership in a family and community.”
I can see him in my mind’s eye, pacing back and forth, with his palms turned up like he was pleading with someone.
“Hell, we stand in line for the latest piece of gadgetry that will keep us titillated and distracted then we wonder why we feel so lonely.”
I knew that granddad was talking about the families who bought their kids televisions and video games. I’d heard him say that flashing images would be the end of storytelling and remembering. While he never said the exact words, I knew that anything that threatened the community’s storytelling and remembering was anathema and should be sent straight to hell.
Once, when I was twelve years old we drove to town to buy feed. In the parking lot of the feed-store was a salesman standing on a big green combine, waving his hands and talking in sing-song fashion, like a preacher. He was telling a handful of our neighbors that they could do more and get more if they would go into debt and buy a combine. I knew granddad didn’t like it. His jaws were tight and he was mumbling. Any hopes I had of granddad not making a scene vanished when the salesman said we needed to plant “fence-to-fence.” The vein in granddad’s forehead turned the size of a small garden hose, and he did something I’d never heard him do – yell.
“I know how my draft horses affect my farm, but I have no idea how your goddamn machine will.” It got really quiet, and some men turned around to look at him, while others shuffled their feet and looked at the ground. The men respected my granddad. They knew he was a thought-filled man, who saw the unforeseen consequences that others missed when they were looking for money.
The salesman smiled a big toothy grin and said, “Hello friend . . .” But that’s as far he got, cause my granddad moved his chaw from one cheek to the other, pursed his lips, and leaned forward to spit tobacco juice on the combine. No one said a word when he turned and got into the truck. The sound of the revving motor was my cue to get in and be quiet.
We rode in silence except for granddad’s mumbling. He was saying something about “remembering,” “storytelling” and “neighbors.” I didn’t understand what it meant until years later. He was gone and I took my boys to see my grandma.
During the visit she began to speak of my granddad and things past. She pulled a fat album of pictures off the shelf near her chair and showed us a faded photo of men and boys standing around a wagon loaded with hay. They were neighbors, members of one another, who had lived in a world that was now lost. They were storytellers, who lived a common life and came together for barn raisings, hog butcherings, and hay harvesting, because it was what they knew, it what they had always done.
Young eyes searched the picture. “Daddy! That’s you!” My oldest pointed to a skinny kid standing among the men. It was then that I understood why my grandfather was upset, why he paced back and forth, pleading with his palms up. The loss of local memory was as clear to him as that combine in the feed store parking lot. He knew that we would lose more than topsoil if we tried to exceed the natural limits imposed by God and the land. But in my moment of knowing, I felt a dim surge of hope. Two boys were sitting at the feet of their great-grandmother to hear her remember.
Doug Sangster lives with his wife in Houston Texas.
We cannot escape the story, the “story we find ourselves in”, to use Brian McClaren’s phrase. Even in a world where family members text each other in the same household, what fills our minds – stories of the past. Yet, it is tragic that people can remember the contents of a movie or TV show, but they can’t remember who they shared the experience with. Community is like an the ruins of ancient civilization, waiting to be rediscovered.
Excellent article. Brings back a lot of memories of my grandpa. Thanks.
Very insightful and well written. Quite a storyteller himself.
The less we work with our hands, the more shackled they are.
I don’t know who said it, but that is so true. I’m not even 40 yet and I have a lunch box full of prescription meds. I earned every one of them from sitting on my rump 8hrs a day, eating what pleased me. By the time I turn 40 I hope to learn from your grandpa (and my physician) what no one had to teach him. Hard work is the situation that God placed mankind in for our trip back to communion with Him.
But I like the way you place community in the picture. Being made right with God is inseparable from being right with the community and vice-versa.
Beautiful story. Makes me yearn for those long, lost days. Where are we headed to next?
It seems that the author has definite Luddite tendencies. Technology is an expression of our progress and should be embraced. Otherwise, our arrested development will make us vulnerable to world powers.
Thank you for this story, especially this line, “They knew he was a thought-filled man, who saw the unforeseen consequences that others missed when they were looking for money.” The proliferation of Dead Zones, along with the loss of topsoil, local communities and small farms are the result of blindly accepting technology without first weighing the consequences. Thanks again.
I am grateful for memories of my grandfather. Thank you for sharing yours.
This lovely piece speaks to me about the lost art of knowing each other. The grandmother knew the grandfather’s tendency to fret and grumble, he knew better than to subject her to it, the grandfather knew his horses’ capabilities and limitations, the child knew his cue to hop up into the truck. We no longer have the hours and days with each other that we used to spend together, where we could learn our friends and our relatives and receive in return the kind of intimacy and familiarity that are borne of long periods of exposure to one another. I grew up down the street from my grandparents and was over there whenever I was bored or wanted to be treated as something special, and I really wish my children would have those long days, too. thank you.
Nice article. I often find myelf yearning for a “simpler” time.
No – Mr. Aitken, that does not mean I have “luddite” tendencies, only an appreciation for the past and the awareness the “progress” almost always comes with a price.
I look forward to your next article Doug.
what an awesome story! I hope to see more of your writing on here in the future.
“They were neighbors, members of one another.”
Wow! Imagine that!
Ask a young person what that means & they have no idea.Too busy texting.
Let me also say I sure enjoyed the story!
Bring back memories of my own grandad & dad.
Ray Aitken is right, unfortunately. It would indeed be bliss if we could all relax in a pastoral idyll, tending to our farms, and recounting poetically the heroic deeds of our ancestors.
In reality, we enjoy such leisurely blogging only because soldiers learned to shoot accurately, and because engineers built bigger and bigger guns for them to shoot.
Si vis pacem, para bellum.
I am grieved the way we don’t listen to the stories anymore. Grandpa sits in the easy chair watching TV. In the same room the grandchild sits with her back to him, looking into the computer (with her cell phone handy and ready to text). Your story hits home. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for this fine story. I’ve enjoyed reading your other stories too.
“It would indeed be bliss if we could all relax in a pastoral idyll, tending to our farms, and recounting poetically the heroic deeds of our ancestors.”
Ah, the omnipresent false and tired binary of the modernist ideologue: Have some problems with technology? You’re a Luddite! Have some problems with corporate capitalism? You’re a socialist! Don’t like certain aspects of modernity? You want to go back to the days of Ozzie and Harriet!
This is not a whit different than “Have a problem with affirmative action? You’re a racist!” although I daresay that many of those who would spout the aforementioned false dichotomies would be somewhat less sympathetic to the last one.
No one here doubts that modern technology has done a lot of good. What I reject is the notion that there are no trade-offs, or that the trade-offs which have occurred are automatically to our advantage. Some are. Many aren’t.
Oh, the memories of my grandfathers. Both are gone. One I knew well, the other was a tough Vermonter who died by the time I was 16. Thanks for sharing your grandfather with us. I most appreciated the imagery the author created with … “It was like the flickering lights at a Broadway play. It was a signal to be quiet and listen.” With my grandfathers, there were many times I did just that… sat quiet and listened.
I wish we could tell such stories to those dear friends, so skeptical of the past, who recoil to hear them without the rote charges of nostalgia they invariably invoke. The abstract arguments about how such a world, no matter how right, is impossible today, followed by an indecipherable torrent of economic justifications for the position. “Better to dive headlong into oblivion with smart phones and internet-everywhere than to give up those things and live life, smaller creatures, with dirt under our nails. Then again, nostalgia – “love of home” – is really not such a bad thing, and we are undeniably far from such a place. Thank you.
Rob and Joshua, I appreciate your even-handed assessments. There is indeed a middle way, even in our technology filled world.
Excellent story, Doug. My mom’s dad died when I was too young to have really appreciated him. But my dad’s father lived until I was well into my 30’s. He was a wonderful guy, and I learned a lot from him…some lessons I’m still learning today.
One of my favorite scenes from Huckleberry Finn is when Huck boards a half sunken ship, The Walter Scott, and finds it occupied by rogues and robbers. It was Twain’s way of saying that the sentimentality, chivalry of the South was dead. Stories like the one above remind of this important lesson. The age of technology is here to stay.
Lovely piece. Image of grandpa riding a hobby horse when he has a bee in his bonnet is even better than a favorite of our family: sitting on your hands with your fingers in your ears.
You sound like one benighted soul—ready for the sake of life to sacrifice the reason for living. Civilization, brother, is not merely the defense of civilization, else in its defense you waste the work of cultivating human beings, which in part is the point of “recounting poetically the heroic deeds of our ancestors” which you scorn. You want heroism without a heritage of heroes. You want communities without communion. If these are not worth cultivating, what is it you want to arm to defend? “Leisurely blogging” is certainly not the apex of these past many millenia.
Aitken dismisses Luddites without knowing them. They didn’t reject machines; many were experts at knowing and working with machines. They were asserting the authority of their humanity over machines, asserting their refusal to be dominated by and replaced by machines. “Technology is an expression of our progress” is a thoughtless statement—a substitution of technology for any ethical purpose to civilization, which Albert Schweitzer reminded us is reverence for life. Merely arming ourselves and building machines without regard for whether they help or harm the creation, human and natural, may look heroic but it’s a thoroughly feeble, decadent and impoverished —and impoverishing—substitute for real civilization.
In any case, I thank you for clarifying the folly, poverty and fallacy of the anti-conservative nature of conservatism-as-militarism.
He was an up- and- coming man– the kind , Mr Fortune thought, who was never just in line with progress but alway a little ahead of it so that he could be there to meet it when it arrived. Flannery O Connor from A View of the Woods
This is another beautiful story by the author that conjures up sepia-colored memories from a simpler and yes, better time. Better because the value of the person and their presence was front and center in the warp and woof of family and community life.
We have so many ways of saying things and nothing to say anymore. As Kinky Friedman said of most young, modern artists : “They’re ahead of their time and behind on their rent.”
If the life that Sangster fondly recalls in his Wendell Berryish way is considered Luddite I say count me in!
Keep up the good work and keep drawing us back to the only things that are of any importance and of any eternal significance: faith,family, friends and the oral and written history that binds us together.
Thank you for painting such a wonderful picture of the importance of family and storytelling. I love reading your work!
I’ve always found everything Doug writes to be insightful and through provoking.
Having lost my own grandparents as a young boy, I did not have the chance to glean any of their wisdom. May those who have had these experiences use them, and continue to share them with the rest of us.
I remember one of my grandfathers as an abusive drunk; the other was a racist who’s complain about busing any chance he got. I was grateful whenever I was allowed to stay away from both of them and very glad they died while I was in my early teens.
Any and all stories they had they can keep.
This musing is as thought provoking as any as I’ve read in the last six months. Mr. Sangster is clearly an insightful author. I hope to read more from him.
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