They were happy about going to buy cheese and other goods from the Amish. They were happy about a particularly good batch of apples. They ate trout caught from tiny streams, and they ate simple. They dried their laundry on a line, and they would watch the birds from the window, enthralled, even when they didn't know their names.
I try to imagine these people years before they were my grandparents. I imagine, because I know the history, what it would be like to walk into your son's room to find his head exploded all over the walls, the white paint dripping blood and brain matter.
I try to put myself in those shoes, and I just think, shit, I'd reload the gun and put it in my mouth. In a second. In a heartbeat. Anything to stop that screaming tear in the mind. But maybe I wouldn't. They didn't. They rallied. Were extra proud of their surviving son. And he lived up to and surpassed their expectations, dreams, and hopes.
They liked dumb jokes, and they read more than anyone I have ever known. Certainly more than most people who quit their formal education so young. They knew that books were equalizers as well as entertainment.
My Paupa showed me more love than he showed my Dad, and I don't necessarily think that the fault lies with either of them. My nana was a constantly giggling, always generous, buddy. When I think back, that's the word that comes to mind. I loved them both so much. I was there when my Nana lost her memory and gained a time machine (she couldn't always remember me, but the street she grew up on was suddenly vivid and real again). I was there when my Paupa tried to figure out how life would work without her. I saw them at their lowest, and they were still higher than me. Paupa became a widower, but only for a few years.
He was still happy, in a way. At least, he could pull it off when I was around.
I've had many examples of amazing men in my life, and I'm not like any of them. Maybe that's a travesty. Maybe that is the saddest thing you hear today. Or maybe that's the way it is supposed to be. Evolution. My Paupa ate all the pain the world could offer, so it wouldn't be a shadow over my father's life. My Dad lost a brother in the worst way you can. He became an only child overnight. And, still, he raised a family...became the most responsible person I have ever known. Maybe too responsible. That's a weight to carry. I know, I feel it. I just can't carry it as well as he did. I feel the pain through the years, and I guess that is human history.
My kids will probably never eat squirrel, chewing slowly in case there is shot still in the meat. I never walked the rails collecting pea-coal that fell off the trains so my family could be warm. I've seen some hardships, sure, but nothing like these people saw, they fought a fucking war. And here I sit, wishing I could be more like them, instead of this quivering mass of feelings and guilt.
Sometimes, I wonder if they knew how much I cared for them. We weren't that kind of family. Not real touchy feely, physically or emotionally. I think they knew. I think they knew I wanted to hear their stories, to learn the things they knew. I think they saw the same progression I saw, and it probably pained them and inspired them at the same time.
Our children never really know where we come from, and maybe that's good. My kids will never live in a city that is still segregated (with a wink). My kids won't be pulling up stakes every couple years. Still, I want to see some of that Mader grit in them. I want to see that resilience and perseverance. I want them to be strong and do the history proud.
Best thing I can hope is that maybe it skips a generation.
There's still hope for my girls.