A letter from my grandfather

I’m still working away on the next installment of my adventures as a wayward harpist, slow and naughty blogger that I am. But today, whilst searching for stationary, I came across an old letter that my grandfather wrote to his brother years and years ago, before my mother was born.

My grandfather died in an airplane accident when my mother was very small, so I never had the chance to know him. Everything I know about him, I’ve learned from family stories and old photos. He was a painter. He met my grandmother while they were both studying at the Art Institute. He toured Europe during the Great Depression, where he rode a motorcycle over the Alps, saw Nazis marching in Germany, and painted monks on an island off the coast of Greece. He was in the navy during World War II.

This list of facts is intriguing, but it never gave me more than a ghostly image of him. The loss of him was a phantom at my grandmother’s house, and as a little girl, I thought that he haunted the back bedrooms. But I could never quite picture him as a real person.

My mom gave me this letter when I was a young teen, and it made him real to me. He had a real flair for description… I wonder if it was the style then to describe foliage at such length in family letters, or if that impulse was purely his own. In any case, he does it beautifully. Here are a few excerpts:

“The October color in these hills is really nothing less than sensational now. Each humble tree and vine, so lately massed in the common viridian of summer, is crying out its own personal manifesto. Rows of shrubs and trees march off down the hills with all the pageantry of a Venetian festival in the great piazza of Saint Mark’s Cathedral. In the visual sense the spectacle has the abandon of All Fools Day in the Middle Ages, when the populace turned its back on society to mill through the streets for a day of riotous joy, noise, pranks, dancing and masquerade…

Pines and spruces point their dark amours up against great splotches of red and yellow maples. A lone ash stands like a goblet of burgundy against the facade of carnival color bordering the woods behind it. There and there an austere telephone pole has been chosen for adornment by some fiery vine that rises like a proclamation of faith along the highway…

It’s really no use talking about autumn. You just have to go out and get drunk, for only the inebriate can know the happy glow of the senses which enthralls him. At this season of the year all talk of a sick world – all viewing with alarm – ought to be silenced. It is too much like admitting a specter to the feast, or having the chairman of the Watch and Ward Society snatch us away from Giorgione’s glorious painting of Venus in all her best voluptuous nudity.”

He goes on to describe shaking an apple tree, and gathering up the bounty in his sweater. I feel like by reading his letter, I get to take that autumn ramble with him through the woods of upstate New York. I can taste the apples.

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16 thoughts on “A letter from my grandfather

  1. That is gorgeous–I love it when he describes the lone ash like a goblet of burgundy, and the austere telephone pole adorning itself in a fiery vine. Wonderful!

  2. and painted monks on an island off the coast of Greece.
    Did he write about this? What island?
    His descriptions of autumn are gorgeous; yet I find myself so fascinated by the little teaser above.

    • Well, he was in Europe on an art scholarship. I know about this particular episode of the trip because my grandmother had two paintings of monks that terrified me when I was little (there’s a photo of one of them in an earlier blog entry). My mum and aunt told me that he caught a boat to an island off the coast of Greece and stayed with the monks so he could paint them, but I don’t really know more than that. Well, except for a story about how the monk was really cold while he was being painted, and used up all my grandfather’s fire wood!

  3. Your Grandfather
    Dear Caitlyn,
    You know, of course, that when you post something so lovely in remembrance, you do honor to this amazing, sensitive, and deeply-spiritual man, my father, your mom’s father, and your grandfather. It awakens a strong response in me. I feel you and your mother deserve more from me about him, since I was old enough to know some of him and his life before it ended so abruptly.
    As I write this, I realize that there is more to say than I can and should attempt here, so I’ll end here as I began: with thanks to you for sharing what you did, in the way you did. I am deeply grateful.
    Blessings,
    Your uncle Dana

    • Re: Your Grandfather
      Hi Uncle Dana!
      Thank you for reading! You’re very welcome, of course. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to share this letter with the internet, but I’ve always really loved these passages and thought that my writer friends who visit here would appreciate them.
      I’d love to hear more about him, if you’d like to share. He’s always had a very mythical quality for me, as I implied above. When I was a kid, Grandma and Barb would talk about the things he did and created, but not so much about who he was as a person.
      I have this letter and one other, if you’d like me to send you copies.
      Love,
      Caitlyn

  4. My Dad- your Granpa
    Hello Dearest,
    I’m delighted that you decided to post your grandfather’s writing on the joys of autumn. I have loved these passages since I first saw them- which wasn’t until I was in my 40’s. I knew so little of him- just tidbits and the kind of gushing tributes that family members tend to give when someone has died young and suddenly. It was such a revelation to have these words from him, and other writings, to make him a real human being.
    As to the Greek monastery, it was a place called Mount Athos, a high mountain where no females of any kind, even animals, were permitted. It was quite extraordinary that they allowed dad to visit, and paint there, but I know his native charm, which he had in great abundance, was probably a factor.
    One story I remember from his visit there was that the “bathroom” facility was simply a hut, jutting over a precipitous cliff with a hole inside. Gives a whole new meaning to the term “hanging out,” not to mention “look out below!”
    I believe the man with the long fingers was actually an Italian who sat for dad in his rooms in Florence. There are other paintings and drawings of the monks.
    Yes, dad was a gifted writer and a poet, as well as a painter. πŸ™‚

  5. This was so lovely that I caught myself pining away for autumn, even though we have not yet reached spring.
    Thanks for sharing this, it really is poetry.

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