Secrets breed obsession. In my family, the most interesting things were never talked about. We’d go out to dinner with Granddaddy and Dottie and hear how their poodle Teena was too scared to cross the kitchen linoleum and had to be carried, but never about the good stuff, like how come we had two sets of maternal grandparents: Granddaddy and Dottie, Grandmother and Bob.
Granddaddy was a regular feature in my childhood. I remember standing on his shoes, holding his loose-fleshed, liver-spotted hands, and dipping back as far as I could as he leaned over, reaching, and pulling me up. I routinely backed up to measure my height against the belt around his paunch, a kind of milestone. Granddaddy had a memorable laugh, like Santa Claus’ but more sincere. Going out to eat with Granddaddy meant interminable Sunday afternoons stuck with the family at restaurants. We wouldn’t get to leave ’til almost three, and even the urgently desired mint pattie or praline we won from him while he paid at the glass counter couldn’t make up for the wasted day. I’d come home bored, and the constant noise of football games on the downstairs TV only made me feel more alone.
Everything about Granddaddy was out of scale. We always entered his house through the back door into the game room. A huge, round, cherrywood table dominated one side of the room, its lazy susan as large as our entire table back home. On the other side stood an enormous pool table with a gigantic mounted elk head looming above it. Every fifteen minutes or so the chorus of antique grandfather clocks lining the walls chimed. Granddad went through La-Z-Boy armchairs more often than he did Cadillacs, and stored the outdated models along one wall of wavy translucent glass. We’d scramble over the chairs, covered in various hues of Naugahyde or leather, pretending they were boats. We tested each one, experimenting with the different contraptions pushed or pulled to swing the backs down and the leg rests up.
At Granddad and Dot’s house Kleenex fluttered beneath each air conditioning vent, so Granddad could tell if it was working. Their house had a peculiar smell: resinous and medicinal at the same time. Years later, when I walked into my in-laws’ house, I smelled it again. “Mothballs,” my husband Richard identified it.
Granddaddy used his 1956 seven-passenger for going fishing; he drove a later model Cadillac limousine as an everyday car. I called the fishing limo a bubble car, because its puffed-up lines contrasted to the angular, thin cars of the Sixties. My brother Don named it Bessie, and he received her as a gift for his twelfth birthday, both because he and Bessie shared the same birth year, and because the dealer wouldn’t give Granddad a fair trade-in price. Bessie was a whale, her grill and headlights anthropomorphizing into a friendly face, with two surprising bullet-shaped chrome projections like overgrown incisors. The limousine’s length assured that Granddaddy didn’t have to take his fishing poles apart between trips. He placed the reel ends on the passenger seat and let their ends bob into the far back seat. Bessie was white, as were all Granddaddy’s cars, to reflect the Texas heat. Often, crossing a parking lot to get to the restaurant, Granddaddy made us halt and place our hands on two cars, one dark, one white, so we could feel the difference.
Granddaddy owned several fishing spots, undeveloped property with manmade lakes stocked with bass, perch, and catfish. You could tell the lakes weren’t natural because dead trees stuck out of them; white stripes encircled the larger trunks, painting a geological record of water levels. We called my favorite lake KLRD, because Granddad allowed the radio station to build its tower there. To one side rose a chalk-white incline, an exotic feature for Dallas.
After several fishing trips, we’d accumulate enough fish for a fish fry. Josephine, Granddad and Dot’s maid, prepared us a feast of our fish with coleslaw, fried cornbread, and green beans. The best part, though, was spinning the lazy susan.
I usually daydreamed, made faces at my brothers, or twirled the lazy susan during those fish dinners because Granddaddy both selected and dominated the conversation, which usually centered on money: discourses on its management or lectures about taxes and the government taking it all. Inevitably, he’d close with a health tip, usually gleaned from personal experience. One evening, he scraped his chair back, giving his girth more room, and announced, “And another thing. Never sleep on your side because it cuts off the circulation in your bottom leg. It’s about the worst thing you can do.”
“But, Granddaddy,” I interrupted. “I always sleep on my side –”
“Well, you shouldn’t –”
“But I sleep with one leg over the other one, so it doesn’t rest on top. Like this. Look under the table.” I waited with my legs crossed in the right position, but no one looked. Everyone just stared at Granddaddy, who finally hmmppfed and extracted a tiny bone from his mouth. I looked at Uncle Henry. I knew he was Granddaddy’s little brother, but the term seemed an impossible fit for such an old man. He sat with his elbows resting on the arms of his chair, nodding vigorously.
Twenty years later, my mother told me Uncle Henry had been lobotomized in the late Fifties. Granddaddy hired Olin Bradshaw, one of eleven Bradshaw cousins from his home back in North Carolina, to look after Uncle Henry. They lived in a farmhouse on one of Granddaddy’s properties – just empty land with a fishing lake. Apparently, Henry had had violent episodes, once chasing his wife with a knife. He also had Tourette’s syndrome and cussed as a kind of reflex. But before and after the lobotomy, Uncle Henry always dressed for dinner. He put on a tie when he came to the table, no matter what. It’s funny what they can’t erase from your brain.
The first time Don and I got to go fishing with Granddaddy without our parents, I didn’t catch anything. We drove out north of Dallas, Don and I each sitting on a prized jump seat. If our little brother Paul had been with us, he would have sat, uncomplaining, on top of the armrest behind us. Granddaddy wouldn’t let me cast as Don did, but I felt too dignified for the old cane poles he offered anyway. I became enamored with the minnows in their bucket, reaching my hand through the round door on top and grabbing their thin, slippery bodies. I grew particularly fond of a dead minnow because it didn’t resist captivity. Years later, I found a picture of my brother holding up his string of fish next to me; I’m proudly displaying my minnow, pinching it by its tiny tail. In the picture it looks as if I’m holding a bobby pin.
Since my mother wasn’t around to tug me away from flying hooks and monitor my every move, I wrapped my dead minnow in a Kleenex and brought it home, where I placed it in an empty drawer in my new dresser. Several days later my mother came in my room with a funny look on her face. “Something smells in here.”
“I don’t smell anything,” I answered. I’d forgotten about my fish until she opened the drawer and there it was, all dried up and shriveled. I was shocked at how it had changed.
Don was interested in preserving dead things, too. At the height of early Seventies’ fashions, when the hippie look was so mainstream even our dad grew long sideburns, Don persisted in wearing our Uncle Henry’s old clothes: khakis and Oxford cloth, button-down shirts. At the apex of the heavy metal era, Don rocked in his rocking chair for hours, alone in his room, listening to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. Growing up, we learned that what was important had already happened before we were born: in particular, our grandparents’ divorce and criss-crossed remarriages to their best friends. The family fortune had already been made, hearts won and broken. Like the black and white sit-com reruns we gorged on after school, the best was past.
“Fishing” is the first chapter of a family memoir recently completed by Austin writer Sara Stevenson.