Monday, March 24, 2008

Grandpa Lends an Ear (and a Spare Word)

Grandpa Arvid was a classic taciturn Scandinavian and a true master of narrative minimalism. Lamentably, I did not inherit his gift, but I still like to think I resemble him in some ways -- maybe like a Sumo wrestler could make you think of Ghandi.

It wasn’t that Grandpa didn’t communicate with people. It’s just that for him, about sixty percent of a good conversation occurred by means of pure intuition and deductive reasoning; another twenty percent was based on silent application of accumulated life experience; perhaps twenty percent involved subtle changes of facial expression; and the remaining ten percent, at most, required actual speech between human interlocutors -- and that included throat clearing. (He made an exception for prayer, which was, by a mile, his longest form of utterance.)

If he were standing up on a ladder painting his house in the summer, or shoveling snow from his sidewalk in winter, and his eight-year-old grandson were to call out to him gamely, “Hi Grandpa, whatcha doing?” there would be no need to answer such a lame question. What would be called for is silence. Even the slightest nonverbal cue, such as a smile or a wave, might convey inappropriate affirmation.

Sometimes, of course, speaking couldn’t be avoided. If he were sitting at his kitchen table in the evening eating Grandma’s fruit soup and the telephone rang, he would go and answer it. His side of the conversation would sound something like this: “Hello. Ya. OK then.” He would return to the kitchen table, and if Grandma or his grandchildren looked at him inquisitively, he might say: “Fryhling.”

Occasionally, Grandpa Arvid would offer a word of reproof for the benefit of a person’s basic practical education. Once, when I was about six, I spent a long time watching him sand a tabletop that he was about to refinish. When he was nearly done, I reached out and ran my hand over the wood and exclaimed, “Grandpa, this feels really soft!”

About a full minute elapsed. In this sort of situation, the point was to choose the right word. Singular. Not two words, if one would do.

“Smooth,” he said.

I touched the wood again and realized that it wasn’t soft at all. It was an extremely hard mahogany tabletop with a surface like silk. I got the difference and never again confused smooth with soft. (In fact, this turns out to be an important distinction which enables you to tell the difference between, say, a marble and a marshmallow, or a snake and a hamster, or Miles Davis and Kenny G.)

“Smooth” is all he had said, but that was enough. If a perfectly good adjective would do the job, why muck it up with a noun? And if a single noun (like “Fhryling”) would suffice, why bother with modifiers? If he absolutely had to compose a complete sentence, he would endeavor not to put two of them together. Any full sentence out of his mouth was typically preceded by something more spare. As in: “The Aunties. They love fish.”

If he wanted to tell a joke, he would not waste oxygen on a preamble or set-up. He would just go straight for the punch line: “Norwegian says that nail’s for the other side of the house.” Who needs more?

The mettle of a truly taciturn Scandinavian is tested when he is confronted with three kinds of existential crises: acute physical pain; the suffering of the innocent while the guilty laugh; and the upsetting of an ordered universe where grownups are supposed to be in charge. At least once in a lifetime, the stars in the Northern sky may align in such a way that all three of these types of crises converge in a single moment. That is pretty much what happened to Grandpa when he took my brother Tod and me fishing in 1966. We were ages ten and eight.

As an implicit reward for our spending most of a midsummer’s day staining a redwood fence, Grandpa trundled the two of us off in his old green Rambler station wagon for an overnight trip to Fish Lake, near his boyhood home in Harris, Minnesota, about fifty miles north of the Twin Cities. We arrived unannounced at the lakeside cottage of Grandpa’s sister-in-law, our Great Aunt Clara, who received us with open arms and jelly sandwiches. After digging some worms, we motored out onto the lake in Aunt Clara’s skiff. Grandpa maneuvered the boat into a weedy spot that looked perfect for bluegills. He cut the motor and proceeded to worm the hooks on the lines of our bamboo fishing poles.

While Tod fished expertly, I soon managed to get my line hopelessly tangled. Grandpa took my rig and began to untangle it, and in the meantime handed me his fancy casting rod-and-reel. “Use this,” he said. What a thrill! Grandpa’s line was fixed with a finger-long fluorescent blue-green bass lure, bristling with multiple hooks. “This’ll catch a big one,” I thought. I turned toward the water, drew the rod over my head, and flung the thing with all my might. Something stopped it dead.

I looked behind me to see Grandpa with his left earlobe extended at right angle to his face, pulled taut by the blue-green bass lure. I dropped the fishing rod in the boat forthwith. Grandpa uttered no sound. Not a single word. Now, that is taciturn.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he reached for the line, wrapped it around his gnarled fists, and snapped it like a filament of dental floss. The fishing lure fell to the side of his face, swinging ever so slightly, sparkling in the sunlight. Tod and I sat down in the boat and stared at Grandpa. He glared back, a fierce pirate with a truly fabulous earring. We broke the awkward silence with an outburst of nervous laughter. Then we couldn't stop giggling. The Pirate spoke at last. “It’s no laughing matter,” he said. And it wasn’t.

The trip was over. We came ashore in late daylight and realized that Aunt Clara and the rest of Grandpa’s local relatives and acquaintances were all away, having gathered at the Covenant church for Wednesday night prayer meeting. Rather than show up at church seeking assistance with a blue-green fluorescent lure in his ear, Grandpa decided that we would just head back to the Twin Cities. And so we did. In the old green Rambler station wagon, driven by a Swedish pirate at ninety miles-per-hour. In absolute stony silence.

As an act of remorseful contrition, I wrote an elaborate poem in fourth grade about the epic of the fish-hook-in-Grandpa’s-earlobe. I sent it to him with my compliments and renewed apologies. He never told me so directly, but I heard from others that Grandpa rather enjoyed the poem and that he retold the story himself from time to time. Coming from him, that was a lot.

Though I still wince at the memory of what I did to him, I cherish the thought of being the principal character in a story told by Grandpa Arvid. As I imagine this tale refracted through the spare elegance of his recounting, it would go something like this: “The boy. He hooked my ear.” And that would be exactly how it happened.