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The last few years of Grandpa’s life were the first few years of mine. Not literally speaking, as I was already a decade old when he came to live with us in the beach house I had grown up in. Before his arrival my days were spent like any other boy; eating anything I could get my hands on, playing with toys I’d soon outgrow, sitting in front of the television for hours at a time. But when Grandpa came things changed.
He had arrived one late afternoon with an old suitcase in one hand, a trench coat draped over his other, and a hat atop his head that made him look like a man who was always on the go. Or maybe I had just formed such a preconceived image thanks to my parents and their stories about him. How he had travelled the world many times over, beginning with his tour of duty during World War II. How he had fell in love with Paris, and in particular, the ancient French art of storytelling, where men calling themselves jongleurs would tell stories in public as a profession. Grandpa, who was poor at literacy but rich in the spoken word had found his true calling, and after many years of earning his stripes as a jongleur among the streets of Paris had set out for one country after another, absorbing local folklore, then masterfully crafting it to his ever-increasing repertoire.
Every now and then the wandering storyteller would find his way back home to the states, and it was during one such occasion while staying at a hotel on a beach in Maine when he met and had an affair with Natalia, one of the cleaning maids. With the wide open world calling out to him, Grandpa couldn’t help but be on his way, having no idea he had planted a seed during his short time on the shores of The Pine Tree State. Only a lifetime later had he received the old letter postmarked Sept. 17 ’53. Some thirty years after Natalia had written it, and nine after her untimely death, when Grandpa had gotten around to visiting his old Parisian friend, who in turn took it from an old dusty book and placed it into his nomadic hands.
He couldn’t read much, but didn’t have to to make out the most important words.
He had a son, which by the date on the envelope meant the boy had since become a man.
With the help of his old friend Grandpa wrote back to the hotel address, hoping there would somehow still be a connection back on that Maine beach. Natalia had been living alone in a one-room bungalow behind the hotel when they had had their brief time together, but so much could have changed over the course of a third of a century. Still he wrote back, evoking such passion with his speech and movements as he dictated to the Parisian. They then sealed it, stamped it, and sent it off, Grandpa once again using the streets of Paris as his stage while waiting for a reply.
Two months later and Grandpa, through pictures and words, met not only his adult son, but grandson and daughter-in-law as well, along with the tragic fact that Natalia had been taken from them by a freak lightning strike right before Richard’s birth. Richard, the boy who had heard grand stories of his grandfather, the jongleur, told by his father Jon, who had been named after the profession of the father he had never met, through stories first told to Natalia, a grandmother Richard had never met. It was all worthy of a tale within itself, and now a new chapter in all their lives was about to begin as Grandpa put down his old suitcase, removed his travelling hat from his head and placed it atop mine. He had slipped his hand into mine before I had realized he had done so, the accent in his introduction having an eclectic sound of being multi-cultural.
With the retrieval of one hand he brought forward the other, the one that had been draped by the trench coat, and with the same level of smooth movement slipped a leatherbound book into my empty extended hand.
I opened the book and found the pages to be blank, a fine-looking pen snugly holstered to the back of the front cover. Without really needing any explanation I looked back up at Grandpa and we shared a smile, the hat and writing journal, both of which I was eager to grow into, his way of sending me forward on my life’s journey.
We invited him into our modest bungalow. It had two extended rooms since the last time he had set foot in it, and he immediately began to recall where he and Grandma Natalia had eaten, slept, watched the sunset. How amazed he was to learn it was still in the family, and saddened that still under the same circumstances. Dad had chosen to be the opposite of his wandering father, fear of the unknown leading him to stay in the same place he had been born, with his lack of ambition, or more accurately, opportunity, causing him to follow in his mother’s footsteps of working for the family who owned the hotel.
Groundskeeper Jon eventually took a liking to someone who reminded him of his own mother, another hotel maid, and thus the strange laws of attraction ensured that the perpetual cycle of poverty would continue on. A disease of humankind that proves to be so hard for those plagued by it to cure themselves of. A social ailment Grandpa himself had tried to rid himself of back when he first left the shores of American soil. But as if it had been destined in our bloodline, as if it had been part of our DNA and somehow projected by an unseen cruel force, the stigma of being a have-not simply could not be shaken.
Being the powerfully dramatic storyteller he was Grandpa ended this reflection of our place in this world with a tear in his eye, but not before finding my mesmerized gaze and uttering the words,
“And yet we go on. Why?
“Because there’s always the hope for tomorrow.”
From that moment on I was hooked! Forever changed! Story was now my air, and Grandpa, the winds that brought it! Like two new best friends, we were always together. The library; our candy store. The beach; our playground, as we would devour one book after another. I reading them aloud, while Grandpa would oftentimes perform what I had just read. His ability to recite long passages after only hearing it once was astounding, and his talent to enhance the author’s work, awe-inspiring!
Our nights were just as enjoyable if not even greater, laying out on what he would call the front row to the universe. In nothing but a pair of shorts we’d be spread out on the beach looking up at the infinite stars while the countless grains of sand would contour against our bodies. Grandpa said this was the magical place for storytellers, that each granule of sand was a star’s counterpart, and vice versa. And it was indeed in this state of celestial being where I first experienced that true nirvana of creating, the cosmic seeds of inspiration gently massaging my skin as I slowly moved my body through the stars, the tip of my fine-looking French pen sticking out from between my fingertips as I wrote, from my soul, towards the cosmos.
I was like a conductor with that pen swirling through the air, planets, clusters, constellations, all energizing brilliant stories within my mind. It was a beauty I knew could never be surpassed, and I felt forever in debt to the one who had brought me to heaven’s doorstep. My mentor, my best friend, my Grandpa.
For the next seven years we ran, galloped, flew through our galaxy of genius! I was a star pupil in my writing classes, Grandpa always waiting with such excitement for me to return home from school with my latest book report or essay grade. And whenever I’d get published in the school newspaper, whether it was for a short story or anything else, he’d be so elated!
I was even approached by the school principal to write a speech for my high school graduation. At first he wanted it to be read by our class valedictorian, but Grandpa shot that idea down as soon as it was brought up, personally visiting the principal’s office to tell him to his face that there were no ghostwriters in our family.
That class of ’93 ceremony turned out to be one of the most memorable moments of my life, the applause that followed my written message to my classmates being so thunderous that I can still hear it whenever I close my eyes and think about it. While the afternoon had been unforgettable as a highlight of happiness, that evening would turn out to be the polar opposite.
It started off as miraculous as any other night we had spent while amongst the stars, opening our souls up to the universe and in turn being filled with the priceless gift of composition. Giving rise to story, character, plot, one part of the other, and all part of us! But towards the end of our soulful session Grandpa said he had something important to share with me. He told me not to move, to just continue looking up at the stars, so as to never lose sight of our greatest gift.
Now that I had reached the age of adulthood I could no longer be protected from its truths. Unlike our grand stories, real-life characters hardly ever changed for the better, with ego, greed, and willful ignorance being the primary motivations of those I would encounter when stepping out into the world. It was important though, he went on to say, that this sad truth not deter me from achieving as much as I could, for in the end there are only two things that define our legacy; what we’ve done with the time given to us, and who we have left to take over our place, meaning our offspring.
As I laid there trying to contemplate this enormous seed of wisdom, trying to grasp its slippery core with my youthful perspective Grandpa laid warning to the toughest obstacle I would ever face. It was the great flood that was about to come. Not one of water from the sea at our feet, but something far worse. Having been written in the stars long ago, this was a prophecy that had already begun to take shape. The biggest threat ever to those of our kind, the storytellers of my generation would suffer most, as we had grown up with the pen stroke, but would be overtaken by the key stroke. Unbeknownst to us we were about to enter a war we would most likely lose, the dawn of a new era silencing voices like Grandpa’s and permanently drying out pens like my own, therefore forever absorbing the inkwell of the storyteller.
The slayer would be all those around us, our fellow man, their swords far mightier than any pen ever wield. Not for its ability to create, but rather to destroy.
I hated this uneasy feeling as I laid there taking in my wondrous symphony of the soul. Who could possibly defeat this totality of creativity? And why would they even want to?
“Technology, my dear boy.
“And they’ll know not what they’re really bringing about until it’s too late.”
I wanted to know more. Specifics. Details. Answers to the questions I now had boiling inside. But before I could find the words Grandpa’s hand found my own, the one with the fine-looking pen I was always holding. His grasp was like that of a consoling relative, who, no matter how badly they wanted to, couldn’t reverse the death of a loved one.
I understood, and yet I didn’t.
“One more story…?”
This was the master jongleur’s last three words, for as I began to move the pen resting between our two hands, as the pulse of the stars above beat through it and shot up into our minds one more story, Grandpa let the phenomena take him, passing on to the purity of being at one with our passion.
Grandpa’s prediction, or rather the one told to him by the stars, turned out to be so accurate that it never would be believed if it were a mere fable. We had indeed been on the eve of the onslaught, with each new year of this destructive decade to the traditional storyteller increasing tenfold as more and more homes hooked up to the executioner known as the internet.
Unlike those who had come before them, absolutely anyone with a keyboard and connection could now call themselves an author, a jongleur, a storyteller. Skills that had once taken years to learn and a lifetime to master could now be claimed in an instant, and as a result the art indeed began to suffer. Was it a coincidence that this war had broken out just as I was about to start my writer’s journey? Or fate’s cruel hand adjusting reality as we knew it so as to ensure I didn’t break free from the plague of poverty? With electronic mail publishers were now inundated with queries, the overwhelming majority being from novices just looking to make a quick buck. The story brokers had joined us in fighting to stay afloat this great flood, with many having lost their talent to spot talent. A read would now be a skim, a skim eventually becoming a glance, a submission of true talent being overlooked time and time again as it drowned in the sea of literary sewage.
And where was I during these dog days of artistic slaughter? With the vigor and naivety of youth I suited up for the war every single day, fighting the odds and trying my damnedest to ignore Grandpa’s wise words that this was a war we’d probably end up losing.
With every letter of rejection, whether it be electronic or paper, I’d turn my anger and frustration into productive energy to fight back.
It didn’t matter that the accumulation of No’s could have entirely wallpapered the greatest of castles, for I was a knight fighting for his dying breed, the fire within rekindling into an inferno every time I’d set foot into a book store and stare at the books of those authors who had managed to break through and take a seat on the throne.
And so I’d continue on and so the machine would rage back, growing ever so stronger as access to it multiplied by the hundreds of millions. Scrounging my way from one uncredited freelance job to another just to make ends meet as cats and people making fools of themselves were being celebrated as the A-listers of this new form of entertainment. Viral is what they called it, (the more accurate word being virus) and as these personal computers became laptops which later turned to phone devices that could fit in one’s pocket the more it infected other mediums as well. Multi-faceted television broadcasts became one-dimensional so-called reality tv, while face-to-face interaction was now being lost to eyes over screens, thumbs spelling out texts taking the place of speech.
This brings me to the here and now, a quarter century after Grandpa decided to get out while life was still beautiful. So how have I faired in this war that supposedly has me destined to fail? Well, judging from the defiant words I choose to use you’ve probably guessed that I’m still fighting on. You would be right, for despite losing most daily battles, in spite of my once-shiny-armor now being battered and faded I still wake up every morning and pick up my pen. When I can, I still visit the beach where Grandpa freed my soul, among other sandy gates to glory. Still trying to escape the iron grip of poverty and release my parents from that simple beach bungalow, even though they insist they’re content there. So yes, the heart of this willful warrior is still beating to the pulse of the stars above, but one thing that has changed is that it now pumps under a shadow of fear. Not of fear of losing the war, although yes, I am so tired nowadays, having been at it for so long.
The real fear is for the life that is developing in the womb which lies beside me every night.
I held off bringing a child into this new so-called technically advanced world for so many years, the love of my life patiently waiting while I kicked and clawed at one bolted door of opportunity after another. But like the sands of an hourglass, biological clocks only run for so long, and so I had to break my own vow of waiting until we ‘made it’ before making a new life.
Will I ever reach the holy grail of a publishing deal? Will I one day walk into a well-known bookstore and lay eyes on a display with my name on it, once and for all shedding the shackles of poverty as my passionate work lines bookshelves worldwide?
Faced with the overwhelming odds of this day and age, how could I ever believe such is possible?
Because as in the words once uttered by a master storyteller…
“…there’s always the hope for tomorrow.”