Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Remembering the Good with the Bad

When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. Almost 100% of my memories of him are good ones. He was a big, tall man whose last name was Whitaker, so the grandkids all called him "Big Whit."

My grandfather was a World War II veteran, a hard worker, and a man of integrity. He was shell-shocked in England during the war. The men on either side and behind him were killed, but my grandfather ended up in a French hospital where he had to learn to walk, talk, and eat again. He wrote to my grandmother and told her he was having "stomach problems." This, he wrote, was why he was hospitalized and would soon be sent home. That's how he was. He never admitted to weakness.

When he came home, he worked for a real estate agency, and he owned his own businesses at different times. The U.S. Government offered him disability pay for his injuries and service abroad, but he flat-out refused. "There's nothing the matter with me. Why should I take money from the Government?"

So I grew up thinking my grandfather could do no wrong.

Whenever my grandmother mentioned his faults, I made light of it. Big Whit was like a second father to me, and he stood high on a mental and emotional pedestal. The man I knew was practically infallible.

The problem with that notion is no one is infallible except for the man who hung on the cross at Calvary and rose three days later. In truth, my grandfather had a terrible temper. Sometimes he drank too much, and a lot of people were scared of him (including his own children).

I'd heard the story many times from my grandmother about his temper. One story she liked to tell was from their high school days. They were walking along and holding hands when a group of boys came up behind them and made cutting remarks. My grandfather turned, punched the first guy in the mouth, who fell back and hit the next guy in the mouth with the back of his head. Both of the young men lost their front teeth. I loved the story, but it also proved Big Whit's inability to suffer fools gladly.

I remember my grandmother asking him not to take that next drink--pleas he ignored as he poured another shooter. Sometimes late at night, he crawled down the hall, growling like a bear and inciting uncontrollable giggles amongst me and my cousin. At the time we loved it, but when we talk about those incidents now, we realize he was intoxicated.

And all of his children tell stories about the domestic violence they endured. It was not considered such in the 1950s and 60s, but the belt, the fist, the verbal abuse would all be grounds for child abuse in today's society.

I say none of this to denigrate my grandfather's name. Big Whit loved his children, he adored his grandchildren, and he was dedicated to his family. And we loved him. When he died in the early 2000s, we felt we had lost the Blake Carrington of our family (for all of those 1980s Dynasty fans out there).

I still remember my grandfather with great love and respect, but I have since learned that there is a difference between respect and hero worship. Nostalgia so easily blinds us from the truth, but it's always better when we remove the blinders. It keeps us firmly rooted upon the ground where we actually walk rather than the one we imagine to be so much greener. In some ways, recognizing that our heroes are human makes them even more admirable.

Many of us who are writers and readers can't stand it when a character in a book is too perfect. They're two-dimensional, uninteresting, and not believable. So why would we ever expect our real-life heroes to be perfect?

Since it's Memorial Day, I will end with this. During World War II, my grandfather did not wait for the draft. He enlisted and volunteered, and he did it without reservation. He did not join the army as a forward scout because he wanted to gain glory for himself, pay for his college education, or kill people. He volunteered because he was an American, a lover of this country, and a fearless defender of it.

Happy Memorial Day. God bless America. God bless our troops.


  1. I think your grandfather was a good man trying to do the best he could with what he had to work with. I can't imagine anyone going through a war and coming back, especially with the experience your grandfather had, and not been "touched" by it one way or another. The fact that he kept going, provided a house and support to his family amidst what he saw during the war is admirable. We all have our faults and imperfections; it is good sometimes to remember them, but not exactly dwell on them in those that we love.


    1. I agree, Betty. He was a good man by the world's standards in many ways. It was a tough time and he had a lot to deal with. We loved him.

  2. It's good to be able to look back and still feel love, in spite of what you understand as an adult. I had a different, but in some ways similar, experience with my mother. She was a difficult person. Long after her death, I realized that a lot of her behavior was probably the result of depression, which, of course, did not "exist" then, and I think she had a learning disability. I hated her for a long time. Now I have greater understanding, and I can look back and see what was good about her instead of only seeing the bad.


    1. I think a lot of people probably suffered depression then and just bore it because that's what one did. It's good to get perspective on why people are the way they are...even if they've hurt us.

  3. How beautifully put. Yes, our memories tend to cloud our perception and paint a rosier picture of someone...but no hero is perfect. They're all human, just as we are. And while I'd never excuse "abuse," it was just a different time. Men were raised differently. I have a feeling had he been born today, he would have likely adopted different ways to adjust to the difficulties that come with raising children!

    1. I think you're right, Stephanie. As grandkids we never saw the abuse, and the kids always laughed about the incidents. Different times.

  4. Thank you for sharing this very personal story.