|Life as a Loser
What Shall Last
By Will Leitch
Mar 15, 2004
The Life as a Loser series will end at No. 200, on March 29, 2004. There are now two left.
I found out a little over a year ago that my grandfather liked to write. It is a failing of myself that I had never thought to ask.
It came up in casual conversation with my grandmother, whom I'd dropped by to visit over a busy Christmas schedule. I love my grandmother, but it has been almost 15 years since her husband died, and she has not lived a particularly active life since then. She plays bingo twice a week, she sends her 30-plus grandchildren $10 for their birthday and she takes occasional visits from family members around the holidays who don't pay her enough mind the rest of the year. Usually when I see her, thousands of great-grandchildren are attaching themselves to my leg. This time, however, it was just us.
I was telling her how I'd just started a job at a magazine. I don't even know if she knew about these columns; the Internet is not something in her frame of reference. I told her the job would be exciting and stable, and how I'd be writing features and news stories about the securities industry. Telling her this, I almost fell asleep myself. But her face just lit up.
"Oh, your grandfather always knew you were going to be a writer." I woke up immediately. What? My grandfather died when I was 13; the last thing one my mind the last time I had seen him was what I would end up doing with my life. (In retrospect, the only thing on my mind when I was 13 was, "I hope my parents don't find out how often I masturbate.") How in the world did my grandfather ever imagine that his grandson, the one who shared his unwieldy William Franklin Leitch name, would end up writing?
"Your grandfather used to love writing. He said it made him feel calm." My grandfather worked at Howell Asphalt, a road-paving company in Mattoon that two of my uncles still work for today, for almost 40 years. The only writing I imagined him doing there was jotting down lunch orders. "He raised eight children, so he didn't have much time, but boy, whenever he had time, he loved it. He used to volunteer to write reports at Howell. He was very funny. He just never had time." I was stunned. Did anyone else in the family know this? "No, he kept it rather quiet. It was just one of those things he loved to do, like fishing. It relaxed him."
I asked her if she had anything in storage that he had written. "Oh, no, I don't think that ever occurred to him. Honestly, I think he would have been a little embarrassed. I don't even know if your father ever even knew." She paused. She is very frail, and her hands shake. Her signature on the birthday cards always looks like an EKG readout. "But he always knew you would do something like that. He saw it in you when you were very young. You're just like him, you know." She then asked me if I wanted any of the peanut brittle she had on the kitchen table. I declined. Peanut brittle is pretty nasty.
One time, in college, I came home for a weekend. I was somewhat depressed at the time, for those vague, completely stupid reasons people get depressed in college. It was springtime, and the Cardinals were playing an afternoon game at Wrigley; I was supposed to meet my father for lunch to watch it. I drove to his office, the CIPS Electric Company substation, where a bunch of electricians have Playboy calendars and posters of Camaros peppering all available wall space.
Buck, a guy my father has worked with for more than 20 years, saw me pull in and told me Dad was stuck on a job just outside of town and wouldn't be back for half an hour. We shared a cigarette and he asked me about college. "You still writing about the Illini? I've had just about enough of Lou Henson; he should retire." I told him I was, in a dismissive, this-is-a-waste-of-my-precious-time type of way. I was sure he didn't care about my newspaper columns anymore than my dad did; my father had famously lectured me on the foolishness of majoring in journalism, where no one did anything but write pointless, usually inaccurate stories, and besides, there weren't any jobs anyway. I had a big chip on my shoulder about my family in college. I think most college students do.
Buck told me I should just wait in Dad's office until he returned. I scowled and pouted my way through the endless parade of work trucks, with ladders and hooks and big metal things I'd never know how to use stacked loosely on their sides, past the welders and the sparks and all the real work, and made my way to Dad's office. He shared the large room with about 10 other guys, but it was lunchtime, and it was empty.
I threw my backpack next to his desk with disgust, and slouched in his chair. I then looked up.
The first thing I noticed was a picture of my sister in her cheerleading uniform. This was before my sister had discovered the counterculture, back when she was a gymnast and a popular kid. She was carrying pompoms and flashing a bright, braces smile. Next to that was, to my shock, my most recent sports column for the Daily Illini. It was surrounded by about 10 others. My father's desk was covered in his son's newspaper clippings. He even had one I'd written about the annoyance of incompetent teaching assistants; that story must have had as much cultural significance to my father as an expose into the oppression of Muslim women in Iran. I had no idea he'd ever even read the Daily Illini. I had no idea he'd even cared.
I sat quiet for a moment, then grabbed my backpack and headed out to my car. I'd wait for Dad there. I didn't want him to see me seeing all that at his desk. It would have been embarrassing for both of us.
But my sister would have none of this. She stood up, walked to the back, crossed her arms and stared at the chatty Cathies. "AHEM! Excuse me, but my brother is reading from his book right now, and you need to be quiet. So be quiet." She stared at them for another 10 seconds or so, then turned back around and sat down next to my father.
From what I'm told, they were awfully quiet from then on.
Imagine that. Imagine being able to read about your grandfather's life, and his times, from when he was in his mid-20s. His fears, his hopes, his dreams; by the time they read these, they will know the ending of the story in a way the author does not. They will have a tie to their roots, a little sliver of understanding of what has helped make them who they are.
This was never the intention, but, truth be told, that might be one of the greatest gifts this column could ever give.
When you strip it all way, we are lonely and confused and, all told, rather pointless. Our constant bluster must be amusing to whomever created this universe; nothing we do is important. In 90 years we're all going to be dead, and whatever we have created during our short time here will be forgotten. Everything I've ever written, anything I've ever done, will, eventually, be the dead sea scrolls, relics, strange curiosities easily dismissed.
At the end, all we really have is family. We have the people who know how we used to cry whenever we struck out in a big game, how we would get scared and crawl into bed with them after we watched Creepshow, how we never could pronounce the word "denominator" without stuttering over the third syllable. They're the people, the only people, who are with you at the beginning, the middle and the end. They're the only people who, honestly, really matter. Everything else just occupies the time, gives us something to do.
My family is the reason I've been able to do anything, and they will be my only legacy. That's just fine with me. I couldn't ask for any better way to go down in history.
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