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Voice Male - Fall 2005
Lessons from Grand-Jack
By Haji Shearer
My grandfather-in-law died last week. I've been thinking about what his life meant to me. He was married and divorced three times. A smart man, he clearly had a desire for connectedness, but never figured out how to make intimacy work. That he kept trying I find admirable, but I'm saddened that the simple tools that might have saved any of his marriages were not available or attractive enough to be of use to him--skills like reflective listening, creative problem solving, and surrendering to the highest truth.
Grand-Jack did not suffer fools gladly. I never thought of him as mean, but "gruff" and "ornery" definitely fit. He was in many ways a "man's man," a product of his times. He was what I think of as a "World War Two Negro." Educated in segregated schools in Boston, served in a segregated Navy, one of the few blacks at Northeastern University in the 1950s, the only black draftsman at a major architectural firm for most of his 20-year tenure--and still he managed to love America and her institutions.
The impact of race and gender on African-American relationships is important, and often understated. How did the racism that Grand-Jack endured in school, the military, and at work contribute to his tendency to be short-tempered and impatient with loved ones? How did the patriarchal culture of the military that he loved shut down some of his innate tenderness and compassion? That he was violated by ubiquitous racist prejudices and misled by a toxic patriarchy I have no doubt. My question is, how did that affect his three marriages and his subsequent estrangement from his only child?
Grand-Jack valued discipline and his lifelong attraction to the military only added to his proclivity to be rigid and stone-faced, even when a situation called for openness and flexibility. Being the only black in a white professional environment, especially during the fifties and sixties when integration was an unfamiliar practice in this country, necessitated creating and maintaining sophisticated masks. How difficult was it to remove those masks at home when dealing with a wife and daughter?
When I began to visit Grand-Jack in the early 1990s, the three marriages were behind him. He had been a bachelor for 20 years and had no contact with his only child, my mother-in-law. Neither did I win easy acceptance from him. To Grand-Jack, the dreadlocks that hung halfway down my back identified me as an enemy of his value system. I didn't share his high regard for the military, and his assumption that I used illegal intoxicants was correct, nor could I even claim to be a jazz aficionado like him, but I had one ace in the hole. By a wonderful synchronicity, Grand-Jack and my parents had been good friends before I was born. So even if I had strayed from the path, he reasoned that I came from good stock and thus cut me some slack.
Although he would not say it and acted as if it were not so, I believe Grand-Jack still craved connectedness. And, if it seemed to him as if all his progeny were growing dreadlocks, using drugs, and thinking seditious thoughts, I had another characteristic in my favor. I was a man, and understood masculine culture. Certainly I was not the type of man Grand-Jack would have designed for a son or grandson, but I was what he had, and I understood the patriarchy he loved more than the females in our family. Although I no longer practiced patriarchy uncritically, I still had empathy for his loyalty to it.
My wife and I were welcome in his home, though he didn't reach out to us except in times of crisis. When we visited him, the routine never varied. He'd greet us at the door, we'd initiate hugs (I'm sure he would have been content with a handshake from me), then he'd usher us into his sitting room. We'd sit on the faux red leather sofa and he'd rest his behind on the barstool in front of his well-equipped stereo cabinet, facing us across a coffee table. This allowed him to slightly bend his knees, retaining most of his standing height so he could lord over us while we reported our current subversive pursuits.
This may sound stuffy and formal, but there was an air of pantomime about it as well. It was clear to me that we were all playing roles expected of us, and while our lives may not have intersected at great length, this was an important and enjoyable ritual. Grand-Jack had a signature reaction to our exploits that I remember with great fondness. We'd be telling him why we didn't eat meat, or how we were going on a meditation retreat, or any of the thousands of other ideas and behaviors that contradicted his value system, and he'd look at us in disbelief, make one of the disapproving grunts he liberally employed, lift his hand to the height of his head and push the space in front of him as if he were pushing us away. At the same time, he'd turn his face away as if disgusted.
The whole series of actions took only a second and was a normal part of conversation with him. When his face turned back toward us, his gaze would be intense and he might offer a harsh explanation for his disapproval or he might just let the gesture stand by itself. In moments of clarity, I could discern a twinkle in his eye that acknowledged humor in the gesture, but there was an unmistakable honesty to it as well. I'm sure my wife and I, in our unabashed enthusiasm for the new and weird, shared some thoughts that deserved the brushoff. At other times, I'm sure his disapproval was without merit. But our interactions with him lacked full emotional intimacy. There was an unspoken agreement that we would get only so close to avoid heated arguments. It would have been difficult for us to be truly intimate with him.
After we bought our first house last year, Grand-Jack called and said he wanted to see only me. This was unprecedented. Of course, I anticipated that he was going to give us some kind of gift for the house. As I sat on the sofa looking up at him, he asked how much closing costs were. I told him about $4000. From his pocket he produced a fat bank envelope, thrust it in front of me and demanded, "Count it." It contained forty $100 bills. After receiving my deep appreciation, he explained he was giving the money to me because he didn't like the way his granddaughter handled money. (I had to agree she sometimes prioritized things I also felt were nonessential!) This transaction opened a new level of relationship between us. No longer did I feel that he was just Jasmin's cranky granddad whom I visited out of respect for her. I now felt an independent obligation to him because of the generous gift.
After the move, our family no longer lived as close to Grand-Jack, but my job was still a few minutes away so I checked in on him more by myself. For five or six months, I visited Grand-Jack almost weekly. I dropped off war movies and dramas (he was partial to Denzel Washington) I borrowed for him from the library and would go by the next week to pick them up. We had some nice conversations during those visits. It was easier to talk to him when my wife wasn't around. A few months before he passed I asked what he thought happened after death. He told me nothing happened: this was it. No life, no thought, no awareness after death. I had to give him credit for consistency. Even staring death in the face, he refused to give in to what he considered sentimentality. I shared my view of the eternal life of the soul and the process of reincarnation allowing us to evolve into perfect union with our Creator. He was silent. Maybe he was too weak or tired to give me the brushoff--or maybe a part of him hoped I was right.
The dozen or so family and friends who gathered at our home following his burial showed me another side of Grand-Jack. There was the man who loved flashy cars, who loved to ride horses; who, even after the estrangement from his daughter, used to take younger family members to see the Blue Angels. But despite his success overcoming racism, in the end it was his allegiance to patriarchy and its toxic residue that kept breaking his heart.
Sometimes, alone with Grand-Jack, I shared my own marriage challenges as I did with other male friends. It was clear he had no stomach for the dance of intimacy I was engaged in with his granddaughter; I believe at times he wanted to advise me to divorce her. Yet I hope he also saw the joy and deep communion that's grown through our trials and apogees. Now and then, when I feel like Grand-Jack and just want to walk away, I see him with the walls around his heart, and I take a deep breath and listen to love.