Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

Granddad’s 95th birthday today

Filed under: family,Granddad — alison @ 09:05

From a letter from my father in Bangladesh, to his children on the occasion of his own father’s 95th birthday.

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Today is Granddad’s 95th birthday. 95 years ago many of the African Americans alive had been slaves or were the children of slaves. Granddad would have known people who had fought in the American Civil War. The First World War was about to start. When Granddad was three years old, Pancho Villa went to war with America, where little Edward was living with his parents in New Mexico. (Granddad tried to enlist to serve in the Second World War, but was rejected because they found he had tuberculosis.)

When Granddad began studying medicine, there were no antibiotics. Medicine was based in science, but was more human arts than technical. Doctors did the best they could without worrying about lawsuits. All their patients eventually died, as they do today.

In 1916, during Pancho Villa’s raid, little Edward’s mother was dying of tuberculosis. This is why they were in New Mexico. I remember overhearing Granddad telling a very young Alison about a little boy being taken in to see his mother in her bedroom. There was a candle. The light was soft and people were quiet. His heart was alive with impending and terrible loss. The little boy loved his mother very much and she loved him. Later there were women who cared for him, a Mother Superior in particular. But the room with the candle was the last time he could count on enduring love until Granny became part of his life.

When I think about Granddad, there is much I don’t understand, especially about the years when I was impetuous boy becoming an impetuous young man. Of the things I feel I do understand, most are about love and persistence.

First of all, Granddad is and always has been a Maoist — ready and eager to learn from workers and farmers. Among his best friends in Ithaca was Charlie O’Brian, the groundskeeper. He liked to play golf, but he didn’t join the Country Club when we moved to Cortland. The parents of the children he introduced me to could not have joined. He was a member of a service club, but when they had to agree to by-laws that restricted membership by race, he resigned.

Granddad’s views on the world have never been majority views. He is not a contrarian. He is simply a man who makes judgments based love for other human beings and on truth.

Most of my siblings know about the efforts Granddad made in respect to the Viet Nam war and about the political consciousness raising that was often part of his medical consultations. I know about these things second hand but I wasn’t in Cortland for most of that time.

What I do remember clearly is the McCarthy years, when politicians’ enemies were painted as communists and communists were painted as evil. The flavors of the times were insinuation, intimidation, and fear. Many of Granddad and Granny’s friends were “fellow travelers,” people who struggled for a peaceful world and a comfortable life for working people. I remember being at St. Mary’s school and being asked to pray for the Catholic, Joseph McCarthy, and his fight against godless communism. I was proud that my family knew better but horrified that other families didn’t. History has sided with Granddad on these large issues, but if millions of people hadn’t engaged as Granddad and Granny did, history might have decided otherwise. I am proud to tell people in Bangladesh that my father is publicly protesting against the war in Iraq at ninety-five.

There are many stories, many perspectives on Granddad’s life so far. You know this from sitting around with aunts and uncles and cousins at family gatherings. Let’s keep the stories alive. All of them. Granddad never tried to hide his warts. It isn’t the events themselves that are important. It’s how a life lived long and with constant effort is affecting all of us.

Love, P.

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