Commonwealth Journal

June 21, 2014

Without the past, there is no present

by Chris Harris
Commonwealth Journal

The rain has stopped. It has been a difficult day of depression, discomfort and distress. Nothing accomplished.”Those are tough words to read when they come from your hero, one of the most important people in your life. Tougher still when you know they were among the very last words he wrote.
But they also shine a light on the poetry that is life — and how important it is to make sure your words are remembered and preserved.
I’ve found myself looking to the past frequently, for a variety of reasons. Combing through old letters, emails, notes I’ve taken, looking to revisit other times and places in my life, looking for clues, looking for inspiration. Not for any particular purpose, other than my own self-nurturing (and to a degree, perhaps, self-flagellation).
In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandparents. A lot our readers, those of a certain age at least, probably know them. My grandfather Meriel was one of the prominent downtown Somerset lawyers of his day. My grandmother Thelma shared the gift of music with countless individuals around here, either as the longtime band director at Pulaski County High School or as a private piano instructor.
I was touched a couple of weekends ago when, at the city’s celebration of rock band Exile and native son Marlon Hargis, the guest of honor spoke glowingly of my grandmother and how she helped mold him into the musician he is today, sharing at least a seed of the credit for his remarkable career. I liked that when he said her name, I could hear cheers from the crowd behind me as I stood there taking pictures of the event for the newspaper. It meant a lot, more than I can properly express.
At the event one local attorney caught up with me and shared his memories not of Thelma but of his brother in the fraternity of the bar, Meriel. A few days later, I spoke to 27 Drive-In owner Harry Roaden about an event he was hosting. Once he recalled who I was, he spoke glowingly of my grandfather, who defended him and his business once in a case that went before the Supreme Court when the drive-in was accused of showing a pornographic film — one that would be considered tame by today’s standards, but was scandalous back then. All who knew him found him to be a fine man; I often describe him to others as a real-life Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He was that kind of a human being, kind-hearted and well-spoken, concerned with equality and the nobility of man.
Then, on Father’s Day, I wrote out a thoughtful message about my father and two grandfathers to share with my friends on social media, reflecting on what they’d done for me. I recalled how Meriel helped mold me who I am today. He instilled in me my love of working with words.
By the time I was age 5, just old enough to fully appreciate him, my grandfather had grown sick with a sudden lung disease — not the result of smoking or exposure to any dangerous environment or anything so expected, but by mere cruel fluke. As it became difficult for him to get even out of bed, I would lie next to him as a child and we’d spend quality time reading, writing in his diary together, or making up stories together. I distinctly remember dictating to him tales of the wolfman and Frankenstein (Thornberry’s toy store in the mall had Universal Monsters action figures that I was into at the time), and he would pen the stories onto the page. Without him, I would not likely have become a writer as I am today.
With all of this on my mind, on Thursday night, I dug out a couple of his old diaries, which he’d used to take an account of each day with little else to do as he spent the last years of his proud, accomplished while bound to his bed. 
The first entry was on Christmas Day, 1985, when he received the diary as a gift from Thelma. The days that followed were full of ups and downs. The sickness was still new to him; the earliest entries showed him resolved to fight it, so often finishing an entry with, “Tomorrow will be better.”
He kept the scores of University of Kentucky football and basketball games, and remarked on when the team played exceptionally or poorly. He noted each phone call and visit he had with old friends and family, particularly with my father and I — observing when Dad sounded “jubilant” or I was “unusually quiet.” He was especially proud of me, his only grandchild, and marveled at my ability to read at that age and the things I’d say, as any proud grandparent would. (One amusing entry told of me proclaiming that I would be a “rich man” one day; clearly, I wasn’t anticipating going into the newspaper industry at that time.) He talked of driving to Louisa and having a Thanksgiving feast with his family, what a gloriously scenic drive it was — and how he’d stayed up all night before, racked with doubts and fears as any person facing illness toward the end of his life might.
One journal ended in February of 197; the next picked up in August. His moments spent looking back on his life, sharing regrets in the company of his brother of “things that were and shouldn’t have been, and things that never were and should have been.” Each day, the temperature was logged dutifully, even as the thoughts became more random, scattered — still in that majestic way manner of speaking he had, like a British lord, but more stream-of-consciousness.
This was the man who, maybe more than almost anyone else, is responsible for the person I became. It hurts today to read these things, to see this picture painted in words of a great soul becoming so vulnerable, but I love that he wrote these things down so I could feel so connected with him, so many years apart.
The last entry, with its ominous beginning, was recorded on Friday, February 17, 1989. A few weeks later, on March 22, he would pass away. He never bothered to start another journal. That page was the last one that he would write.
It’s fitting then that the rain had stopped, as he said. The darkest days of a good man’s life were coming to a close. It was time for him to go to a better place, to be relieved of his pain. Even at that young age, I knew that. I was sad to lose him, but happy that he no longer suffered. He certainly didn’t deserve to go through that daily struggle just to breathe, even with the aid of the oxygen tank to which he was bound.
Life’s funny that way. There is an odd symmetry to it. It is full of little twists, coincidences too sharp to ignore, serendipity and clever ironies. It’s a poem that’s constantly written by all of us, written by God, written by the stars. And it’s expressed through our words and deeds, whether we realize it or not.
But no one will ever know if we don’t keep those words, treasured for posterity. Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, special friends — whatever role you may play in a child’s life, I urge you: Write down your thoughts. Keep a diary or a journal. If not every day, occasionally. Fill out one of those special “grandparent” books specifically designed for you to leave an account of your life on paper. Tell your story to the young ones. 
Yours may be words that they can look back on and smile. They may be words that bring tears or disturb them. They may be words that reveal how human you are — and shine a light on aspects of those reading that they may never have seen before.
I got all of those reactions out of reading my grandfather’s diaries, and I’m so glad that I did.
The past is important; without it, there is no present. Make sure your present is there to become the past for those who come after you.
 
CHRIS HARRIS is a staff writer at the Commonwealth Journal. Reach him at: charris@somerset-kentucky.com.