I had written an A paper, so I got up my nerve to ask Mr. Armstrong in his Wilson Hall office why he had given me an A-minus for the course. My participation in the weekly seminar discussion wasn’t that strong, he responded. This was like 1978.
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I stared at the passing pines and a smoldering, almost eternal sunset from the middle seat of our old minivan yesterday on the way north from my parents’. (I had been fighting sleep just an hour out of Tidewater – a short time even by my standards – so Victoria had taken over the driving.) I thought about the story my father had told the evening before, a deflating conversation he had had with an old English professor at Virginia, where he had matriculated on the GI Bill after his honorable discharge. You’re not the student your father was, the professor had told him.
But English was supposed to be my strength, like my grandfather’s, and I loved Faulkner. Two-thirds of the books we had read that spring seminar at Virginia were Faulkner. I thought yesterday about the bright afternoon I had pointed out Faulkner’s use of tobacco in Sartoris to settle us in time and to distinguish among generations of men rising through their accreting heritage. John Sartoris had smoked a pipe; old Bayard, his son, smoked cigars; and young Bayard, his son’s son, smoked cigarettes. Mr. Armstrong, I remember, was impressed. Maybe I never said much more.
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You know what gets me? Have, had, and had had. When a fourth generation starts telling the same story, will they say had had had, or will they switch back to had, as we switch between two punctuation marks for quotes in quotes in quotes?
I never go up in my parents’ attic to read my grandfather’s long, typed letters. I imagine they’re like mine: newsy and oddly shutmouth when read in a single sitting. Friable.
My mother saves my letters, too, or some of them, as from a fire. Years ago she had a necklace forged of my grandfather’s gold medallion that he had won in a college essay contest, and she’ll still wear it. I’ll often talk about literature with her on their porch while my father falls complacently silent. He’ll start to doze after a while as I might to a car’s engine.
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Pop loves to drive. At 87 he bought his first red convertible, a real cream puff. He demonstrated the top to us yesterday before we said our goodbyes in their driveway. You can see my teenage son’s reflection in the waxed surface, talking on his cell.