categories: Cocktail Hour
It is one thing to write about my father, long dead. But to write about other (living) people is another can of worms. As my wife Nina says, “If you say they are brilliant, beautiful, and charismatic they are okay with it. But if you say they are brilliant, beautiful, charismatic, and occasionally get in bad moods, they will hate you for it.”
Which brings me to my Mom’s role in the following piece. In real life she is beautiful, vibrant, smart, compassionate, artistic and athletic. In this piece she is just someone who crows about their health. Sorry, Mom…..on to the essay:
I come from a long line of egomaniacs on both sides of my family. As a memoirist, I’ve spent much of my time focusing on my paternal lineage and the particular Germanic tint of that egomania: the rushes of confidence and waves of insecurity, the glory and shame, the megalomaniacal glee and melancholy. But my maternal line offers a different flavor of ego. It’s a vain, simple, athletic overconfidence that loves to look itself in the mirror. Though my mother’s heritage is mixed, she will tell you that this proud vitality stems from what she calls our “Danish blood.”
Since that blood flowed from her biological father, whom she barely knew as a girl, she might be forgiven if she spoke bitterly about that distant character, who divorced his way out of her life early on. Instead it sparks the romantic opposite. She sees “the Danes” in her family tree, particularly her father, as a mythic race of long-lived athletes and, once she gets going, her main themes are their–and her own–”good stock.” Her thesis is simple and unchanging: Because her father and his parents were extremely strong and athletic people, Danish people, she is essentially invulnerable. “I’m as healthy as a horse,” she will often say after check-ups, chocking this up to her Danish blood. It’s kind of the opposite of being a hypochondriac. Of course I never mention to her that when I think of Danes I think of Kierkegaard, say, or Hamlet, not exactly exemplars of unselfconscious mental or physical health. She wouldn’t listen anyway. In her own private stereotype Danes are stronger and hardier than the Vikings with whom their ancient blood mingled.
As for my mythic grandfather himself, I only saw him a few times as a child, usually during family visits to Disney World. I don’t remember too much about those early encounters except that always called me, and everyone else, “Pard.” “Pard” was a name that was short for “Pard-ner,” a name that he must have used in golf. Though his roots were Danish, my grandfather wasn’t really a “Dane” since he’d spent his whole life in this country, mostly in Florida. But in other ways he fit my mother’s image of her Danish Line: tall, strong, handsome, virile. And his last name was perfect for the familial stereotype, as if created by a none-too-imaginative screenwriter: Christiansen. His first name was Earl, or as my father called him, “Earl the Pearl.” My father never missed an opportunity to needle Earl, both behind his back and to his face. The Pearl, according to my father, was not only vain, but cheap. “Watch him when you go out to eat,” he would say to anyone who would listen, “He’ll always get up to go to the Men’s room right before the bill comes.” And, according to my father, he likely spent most of the time in the bathroom not just avoiding the bill but staring in the mirror. Earl was bald as an egg but still a handsome man even in old age when I got to know him. My grandmother once told a story that seemed to confirm my father’s view of Earl’s vanity. She said that on their wedding night in Florida he’d taken off all his clothes and flexed naked before her and crowed “Can you believe all this is yours?”
In fact, as my father told it, the whole “Danish” side of the family was full of scammers, n’er-do-wells and confidence men who went from one scheme to the next. But there was another side to Earl. While it was true that he jumped from job to job, the fact was that his life itself had been varied, dramatic, and fascinating. He played pro baseball for the Yankees (another reason for my father, a lifelong Sox fan, to dislike him), with the distinct misfortune of playing first base behind Lou Gehrig. But if his baseball career sputtered, his golfing career thrived. He was known throughout Florida as the “golfing cop,” a motorcycle policeman who won the Florida State Amateur as well as several pro tournaments, and he played in exhibitions with Sam Snead and Bobby Jones. He was once the low scoring professional at a tournament in Ohio, but was beaten by a 16-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus. As an amateur, of course, Nicklaus couldn’t collect the pot. This delighted Earl. When asked about it by reporters, he cracked: “Jack, you may have the trophy, but I have the money.”
I only remember Earl coming north once, when he visited us on Cape Cod, a trip that has become family legend. The highlight of the trip was the day Earl kidnapped a 12 year old friend of my brothers. The story has become blurred by re-telling but the gist is that Ruth Day, a family friend, had driven over to our house, beaming over her purchase of a new red Firebird. Earl liked the car, too, and told Ruth so, and then asked her if he could take it for a spin. Ruth, just back from the dealer’s lot, was reluctant, but because this was my mother’s father said “Sure.” Earl’s first stop was at the local beach club, which was where my mother had told him my brother was playing. Earl strode into the club and slapped his hand on the back of a boy he took to be my brother and said “Want to go for a ride, Pard?” Poor Greg Hunter was a good friend of my brother Scott, and might have even looked a little like him, and as Greg re-tells it, he recognized Earl as Scott’s grandfather. So he acceded to Earl’s strange request. For more than an hour they drove around Cape Cod in Ruth Day’s new car, Earl stinking it up by smoking a big cigar while telling the boy he thought to be his grandson all about his life. Greg just nodded, silent and terrified.
* * *
My single adult meeting with my grandfather was so strange that it had the feel of a drug trip or half-remembered dream. This was during the fall of my 28th year, when my life was devoted to Ultimate Frisbee. This sport had been my chief obsession for years, and had been one of the things that led my father to conclude, along with the fact that I’d never had a steady job and made vague claims about wanting to be a “writer,” that I had way too much Chritiansen in me. In fact my persona within that sport was an odd mix of the egomaniacal strains of both families. In Ali-like fashion, I billed myself as “The greatest player of all time–by far.” Though this wasn’t true, I did play, when my mind didn’t choose to undermine me, with a certain swagger. That fall, the fall I would have my encounter with Earl, I trained as I never had before: I foreswore even a drop of alcohol, ran the beach and dunes on Cape Cod, did countless push-ups, jumped rope, and threw hundreds of Frisbees each and every day. At my girlfriend’s apartment in Boston I would jack myself up on coffee and take ten mile runs around the reservoir, loving the oogly mushroom feeling that throbbed through my body when I finally stopped. And, after a hot shower, I, in the proud Danish tradition, was not above flexing and admiring myself in the mirror.
My training culminated in late October, when the National Championships were held in Miami. On the Saturday of the tournament, as I charged around the field, I was surprised to hear my grandfather cheering me on from the sidelines. Of course I didn’t recognize his voice at first, but who else would call me “Pard?” No one in the family had told him that I would be in Florida, but he had read my name in an article about Ultimate in the local paper, and had decided to come out and watch.
That Saturday night, after the games, my grandfather invited my girlfriend and me out to dinner, and, true to form, took us to Denny’s. He wasn’t in the men’s room when the bill came, however, and paid it before insisting that we forego our hotel room and spend the night at his house. It was a strange ranch-style home filled with three miniature dogs of a breed I can’t remember (Schnauzers, I now think) and with dozens of little porcelain statuettes of the same dogs that his nutty wife collected. When we asked her about the tiny jewel-encrusted vases on the mantle we learned that these were urns filled with the ashes of Schnauzers past. There were also tacky glass chandeliers and black velvet paintings, and the dog statuettes were everywhere, giving the place the feel of an upscale miniature golf course. Later my girlfriend would compare the evening to being in the midst of an existential play. Earl’s wife, his fourth or fifth wife I think, a woman with frizzy Collete hair, pointy Far Side glasses, and a peculiar distant look, spent the better part of the night kissing and baby-talking with the little yapping dogs, until, after we’d all had a couple of nightcaps, she suddenly pulled a small pistol from her purse and proceeded to wave it around. We were surprised, to say the least, though not scared as it was a cute little gun with embedded jewels and it was clear she had it out not to shoot us but to show off. Over dinner Earl had mentioned how dangerous Miami was becoming, but as a liberal anti-gun sort, I couldn’t help but ask the crazy woman why she kept it in her purse. In reply she stared at me with a fierce and protective intensity.
“For the coloreds,” she said. “If they come.”
The night got even stranger after that.
“You’re in here, Pard,” Earl said when it was time for bed. He pointed toward his little bedroom while his crazy wife ushered my girlfriend out toward the guest room. Earl, I learned, would be sleeping in the same bed with me. He had me sleep on the inside, away from the door, and then showed me his gun, a larger and decidedly less cute weapon which he kept under his mattress. He flicked off the light before I could really fathom the implications of my elderly bedmate packing heat. The next day I would play in the semifinals of the national championships for which I’d trained all year, but that night I would barely sleep a wink. I lay there stiff and terrified, vowing that, no matter what, I wouldn’t get up and go to the bathroom during the night. It wouldn’t be wise to startle my armed grandfather.
* * *
I wish I had more but that’s about all I remember of my maternal grandfather. Earl is long since dead, of course, his handsome face forever gone. As for me, Ultimate Frisbee is far off in the past and I will soon turn fifty, hardly ready or willing to flex in the mirror. Happily, my mother continues to crow about her own health, and so far her genes have done double duty, not just protecting her from sickness but from worrying about sickness. As the usual middle-age health problems start to set in, I’m glad to have some of Earl, and my mother, inside me. I doubt I will soon start beating my chest and crowing to my daughter about my own health when I come back from check-ups, but who knows? There are worse myths to wrap oneself in. Why not stand tall and strong, and why not tell the world about it? Why not glory in the pulsing of my Danish blood ?