Memories, Medals, and Bookshelves

Photograph of an English medal received by my grandfather in 1941 and an English medal I received in 1999.

Note: I wrote this back in the fall of 2012 for Rosie’s Basement, a storytelling project started on Tumblr by a friend. I’ve always liked this piece, so in the interest of longer-term preservation and increasing its visibility, I’m posting it here.

I will always remember my grandfather as one of the first adults who ever lied to me. “Watch this,” he’d say, popping an olive into his mouth, pretending that it had traveled down his arm, flexing his bicep to reveal the source of his muscles. He was like a real-life Popeye, tattoos and all, a former Navy man who lied about his age to fight in the Second World War. I don’t know how often he pulled the olive trick, more than once, less than a hundred times, but close. Part of me likes to think that I was in on the joke, even at that age, that I requested its repeat performances despite knowing its secret, that Poppy knew that I knew, but loved that I loved him for the free one-man show. He let me in on the long con of life, but he also showed me how to have fun with it.

My grandfather died on Valentine’s Day in 1987. I was five years old. Another lie: my younger brothers and I weren’t told about his death, at least not right away, too young for funerals, given candy instead. Over the years there were stray stories of Poppy here and there. The time my father showed up at my mother’s house the night after his bachelor party, ball and chain still attached to his leg, knowing that Poppy was his best bet for a hacksaw in Brooklyn at that hour of the morning. Poppy didn’t seem thrilled to be greeted that morning by his future son-in-law. On the drive up the block to Mary Queen Of Heaven on the day of her wedding in 1976, he (allegedly) told her: “If you don’t want to go through with this, we can just drive right past the church and keep going.” He was a drinker, spending his fair share of time at Farrell’s over by Prospect Park, to the extent that my Uncle Jimmy would be sent around to get him home for dinner on some nights. My Aunt Kathy used to brag that she was his favorite child. Bits and pieces here and there, connections too spectral to hold on to, even on the few occasions when I’d head over to Farrell’s myself for an afternoon drink, an outsider amidst the local firemen and the ghosts of my own past.

When I graduated from college in 2003, my mother gave me a case that contained my grandfather’s Catholic War Veterans’ Award, a medal he received in 1941 for his prowess in English. I had been a reluctant English major in college, having first gone to school for a Communications degree and a vague plan to practice journalism of some sort. I had consciously or unconsciously placed distance between myself and my past, my former bespectacled, nerdish life as a student who was OK at reading, the recipient of our small high school’s English award. My own medal, a tiny gold laurel, sits next to Poppy’s much cooler medallion in its aged case. My grandmother had found her husband’s award while cleaning up the wake of his death in 1987, deciding what to keep, what she could still live with on a daily basis. When I won this award in 1999, she gave it to my mother to pass on to me.

I keep Poppy’s medal on one of my bookshelves, in front of a disorganized poetry section. I was convinced to take up English in college by a French teacher, one of those professors who changes your life in an afternoon in a conversation that they themselves might barely recollect in retrospect. Prof. Keith had sensed that something was off, that college was not living up to the hype for me. “What do you like to do?” she asked, ignoring the school’s party line about internships and experiential learning. When I mentioned English, she walked me down the hallway and introduced me to the man who became my advisor, the professor who convinced me that I could hack it at graduate school if I wanted to. I’m currently two years away from completing a PhD in literature at a school in Boston. I’ve bought into the lie that maybe I can get paid to read, and it’s taken me this far.

I’ll be the first McGrath in the family to earn a PhD if everything works out over the next few years. Poppy didn’t go to college, but he made sure to finish high school after the war. He supported my mother’s decision to go to the University of Georgia in the early 1970s, even convincing her to stick with the degree after she considered dropping out for a job in the city. As my mother notes now, this was a blessing given the era and the expected roles of women in a middle class Brooklyn neighborhood. She went on to get a Master’s degree from Hofstra, and she’s a big part of the reason I got into teaching myself.

Telling the story this way is a little too neat, a little too movie of the week. Before she retired, my mom would tell me stories about the new bureaucracies of New York City public schools, the days of test prep, the principals who didn’t have your back, who saw the kids as stepping stones to bigger paychecks, lines on a CV. Life in graduate school has been as much of a headache as it’s been enjoyable, with mountains of student loans and a growing sense that it just hasn’t been worth it in the end. I don’t see myself enjoying a tenured position at some university in the best of possible future scenarios, and more often than not I’ve found that my suspicions about academic life have been warranted. I spent most of a recent academic conference on its outskirts, talking more with the staff at a local bar than with the jury of my peers, preferring their company to the more obnoxious students at prestigious universities who spent their afternoons talking Marxism and their evenings treating bartenders like dirt, dangling dollar bills like carrots, barking commands. Even in a better job climate, I’m not sure that I want this life anymore.

The most important part of Poppy’s con, it turns out, was not the trick but the smile on his face. I like to think that he was surprised by the award in English, that he never set out on a medal hunt in the first place, that this might be something he could get used to if things kept lining up. I like to think he forgot about his medal when all was said and done.

Things aren’t all doom and gloom for me. Even at that conference I was eventually adopted by a contingent of fellow misfits, people who shared my reservations and my aversion to networking. I still want to teach. I know what I don’t want to be. My regrets don’t keep me up as often as they used to. Poppy’s award doesn’t weigh on me. It’s more an emblem of how supportive and tight-knit my family has been all these years, a relic that reminds me how lucky I am to have people more interested in my good times than the degrees on my wall. You’re doing just fine, kid. Relax. You remember how easy it is to flex your muscles, to turn it on when you need to. I taught you the con. Medals are for bookshelves and desk drawers. You can’t take them with you. Make the living miss you when you’re gone.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me (james_mcgrath@brown.edu) or find me on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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