Questionnaire for My Grandfather
Please answer all questions as simply as possible; do not use digression as a means of evasion. Feel free, however, to elaborate on the point at hand to a reasonable degree so as to provide the clearest and most informative answer you can. You may want to use your hands—or other body parts—to express yourself, if for some reason the answer to any given question does not present itself verbally to you. Do not lie. Any lies will render this questionnaire null and void and require that you submit to its inquiries again. (I am a patient person; I have asked these questions all my life. I can keep asking them.)
Is it true that you were born and raised in the port city of Göteberg, Sweden, toward the southwestern tip of that country at some point during the second or third decade of the last century?
Is it true, as family legend states, that you ran away from home at the age of thirteen?
Why did you run away?
Is it true that the means of your escape was provided by the Portuguese merchant marines? Did you (as for some reason I always imagine) climb on board that first ship in the Göteberg harbor shoeless and wearing woolen britches rather too short for you? Were you at that time (as for some reason I always imagine) carrying nothing but a small parcel of personal belongings wrapped in flannel cloth? Did this parcel contain the thick, lightly gilded, leather–bound Bible, a Swedish translation that my mother still has (protected by triplicate layers of plastic kitchen wrap) in her possession?
Is it also true that the broad Göteburg harbor was (as for some reason I am imagining right now) shining a deep sort of teal gray blue and that sunlight was scattershot across it like so many silver coins the day you left it behind?
Is it a fact that while working for the Portuguese merchant marines, you learned the craft of metallurgy?
What is metallurgy?
Can you now or could you ever speak Portuguese?
Are you really, as my mother once told me, what is known as a “Black Swede,” meaning small, wiry, and dark? Is the term “Black Swede” a pejorative one?
How tall are you?
Your hair, I know from the one photograph I have of you, is dark and slightly waved. Your eyes are light. But are they blue or green?
Whether blue or green, do you sometimes suspect that your otherwise attractive face may be marred, as are the otherwise attractive faces of six of your seven children (including my mother), by those eyes? Are they, perhaps, a little too large, too light in color, too vigilant in expression? Have you ever noticed that your eyes, in other words, make other people uneasy?
Is it a fact that your father was a minister? Was he a good one? Did he rouse the crowds? Or, rather, the humble congregation? (I picture a small church: whitewashed walls, wooden pews. Dark inside. Not many windows. What windows are there are clear, not stained. If there is a crucifix—which I somehow doubt—it is small and simple, probably wooden or silver plate.)
Is it true, as family legend states, that your father regularly beat you and your brothers twice a day as a matter of basic discipline?
Is it true, as family legend also states, that you were required to say your morning prayers at 4:30 am and that if you happened to fall asleep during those prayers, you were sure to receive a third beating that day?
Is it true (as you must have told your children since they told me, or at least talked about it amongst themselves some long–ago Christmas Eve or Thanksgiving, and I overheard it) that your father used flexible twigs, stripped–down saplings, or something like reeds to beat you?
Is it true—or at least possible—that your mother sometimes wore a very long brown dress, quite plain, with a simple ruffle at the hem? Is it true that on top of this dress, she would often wear a gingham apron? Did she occasionally wear an old–fashioned white cap on her head, and was her hair a soft mass of mousey brown often tied in a bun at the nape of her neck? (I ask because when I concentrate on the phantom of your mother that I carry in my own head, this is invariably how she is dressed.)
Did your mother knit? (I knit.)
If so, did she do so by the fire? Was that fire an open hearth or was it one of those old–fashioned Swedish stoves—the kind covered with large, brightly glazed ceramic tiles and made as much for sitting as for heating and cooking?
Was your mother, as my mother once told me you told her, kind and loving, but meek to a fault?
What exactly do you mean by meek?
Was she a good cook? What were some of your favorite childhood dishes, as prepared by your mother?
Did you eat rabbit? (I have a Swedish cookbook that I got I don’t know where, or when, which—although very poorly translated—has some good recipes, including a cream–based rabbit stew flavored with juniper berries. Whenever I make this dish, which might be once every other year, I think of you and wonder whether you may have eaten something like it when you were a child.)
Did your father, as, for obvious reasons, I have always assumed, beat your mother in your presence? If so, can you say with any certainty whether or not he was drunk when he did so?
In your opinion, was your father an alcoholic?
In your opinion, was your mother an alcoholic?
Is it true, as family legend has it, that you yourself drank nearly a bottle of vodka a day?
It must have been very cheap vodka, no?
Did you ever have any “drinking buddies” or were you, as my mother has described you, too deeply misanthropic for that?
Did you really, as my mother once told me, enjoy “playing” with people “as a cat plays with mice?” Were you, as she also claims, weirdly “driven” in these kinds of games while at the same time seemingly “devoid of all emotion?” Almost “robotic” in your manipulations? Keyed up, yet at the same time totally calm, detached, but then nearly gleeful (I almost said orgasmic) whenever you “went in for the kill,” which is to say, when you found some way of humiliating the person you were with?
Would you agree, as is generally thought to be the case, that vodka has no taste and that it leaves no hint of itself on a person’s breath? Were these qualities ever of any advantage to you?
Were you, as I believe I have heard it said, one of four sons? Was it difficult having so many brothers? Did you sometimes feel you couldn’t live up to your brothers? Were they perhaps bigger than you? Or smarter? Kinder or crueler, or simply more popular?
Were you the oldest, the youngest, or one of the middle brothers?
Are you aware of the fact that one of your brothers—I think his name is Thor—became a famous televangelist in your native country?
Did you ever have a sense, as a child, that something might be wrong with you? Did you ever feel that your thoughts didn’t obey you, or that you weren’t entirely in control of your own actions? Did you ever have the sense that there was something off, something not right in your head?
As a child, can you claim to have had many friends? Do you remember any of these friends in particular? What sorts of games did you play with them?
Did you do well in school?
Did you have a favorite teacher? What was his or her name? Why did you like this teacher so much? Did they, perhaps, see something in you that nobody else saw? What was that thing—that quality or condition or personal quirk—that they saw? Was it something your father did not see? Did your mother see it?
Did you (as I do, despite never having met him) hate your father? Was your father (as I feel convinced he must have been, albeit on very scant evidence) a kind of evangelical madman? Would you have liked to kill him? Did murderous thoughts ever occur to you in moments of great duress—for instance, while he was beating you?
Did you ever dream, as a child, of someday becoming, like your father, the minister of a small Lutheran church? Or did you perhaps imagine you might like to be a doctor? Or an artist of some kind? Or maybe an astronaut? (Did children even think about astronauts back then? Or were sailors the astronauts of your day?)
Although your formal education obviously stopped when you ran away from home, were you ever tempted, as some men are in similar situations (I am thinking of other sailors, like yourself, or prisoners), to read the Bible as they would read a great novel? Or to read the dictionary word by word? Or to contemplate Zen koans for hours, even days on end? What I mean is: Did you ever make any attempt to raise yourself intellectually or spiritually? Did you ever conduct personal philosophical investigations of any kind? Or did you enjoy, as your future wife would, degrading your own mind to the greatest extent possible?
What most attracted you to my grandmother?
Is it true that you met her on shore leave in New Orleans?
This would have been in the early 1940s, right?
Is it true that she was at that time working in that city as a prostitute?
Is it true that your first encounter with my grandmother was as a customer?
Didn’t you find her ugly—with her long, thin face and dramatic underbite?
Or did you like her legs, which were superb? Did the graceful lines of her body help you to overlook the homeliness of her face?
Did you sense—perhaps because of her long face and remarkable underbite—that in my grandmother you had finally found somebody who needed you in a way nobody else had ever needed you? Somebody who would be as loyal to you as a dog and, like a dog, absorb your abuse without ever misplacing her loyalty?
Did you make my grandmother laugh? Did you court her? Did you ever shower her with presents, compliments, or caresses?
Did she make you laugh? Did she beg you to love her, to stay with her, to marry her?
Are the very, very tiny golden earrings shaped like daises, the centers of which are little green emeralds not much bigger than a grain of coarse salt—earrings that are swimming around somewhere in the blue–and–white Chinese porcelain bowl on the shelf above the sink in my bathroom (the bowl in which I keep jewelry I never wear), earrings that are tarnished and misshapen (the wire is very thin), and one of which is broken—were these earrings really what you gave my grandmother in lieu of a wedding ring?
How soon after meeting her did you first realize that my grandmother was an unusually intelligent woman? How soon after that did you realize that she was the kind of person who enjoyed destroying her own best qualities, including her intelligence?
Would you say that your wife’s masochism was in some ways the lynchpin of your marriage?
Did you ever feel hopeful with my grandmother? Was hope or happiness at any point central to your relationship with her?
When you first met her, was my grandmother already a bitter woman? Could you taste the bitterness in her mouth? Could you smell it on her skin and clothing, the way I could when I was a child? Could you see it growing in the dark shadows under her eyes?
Did she, even then, enjoy telling tall tales, often of a gruesome or morbid nature?
Did she, even then, speak obsessively about the sadness of her own childhood?
Did she, even then, speak with great hatred of her aunts, who had raised her?
Was this something the two of you shared in common? An inconsolable sadness regarding your respective childhoods and what was stolen from you during that time?
True or False? You sexually molested all four of your daughters.
True or False? You often beat your wife when you were drunk.
True or False? You were drunk most days.
True or False? You raped your youngest daughter, Melinda, before you ran away. (You ran away shortly after I was born; your youngest daughter was eleven when I was born.)
Are you aware that your youngest daughter, my strangest and funniest and, by my childhood standards, coolest aunt, died nearly ten years ago of a heroin overdose at the age of forty–three? Are you aware that she died curled up in a dry bathtub, naked and covered with bruises? Did you know that the heroin she used was of an almost unheard–of purity? Are you aware that she herself was acutely aware of this extreme purity because one of her best friends had died of an overdose on this same batch of heroin only two or three weeks earlier?
Do you consider your youngest daughter’s death a suicide?
Do you consider yourself in any way responsible for that death?
How did you die?
Were you lonely?
Were you sad?
As you were dying, did you think of your meek mother and your own long–lost childhood? On your deathbed, did you yearn for some of the ancient comforts you had known then?
Or, alternately, were you filled with remorse and paralyzing regret in regards to the whole of your adult life?
Are you aware that my mother is mentally ill and has been for a long time, perhaps even since childhood?
Are you aware that she has been hospitalized—rough count—at least eight times? Are you aware that she has tried to kill herself at least as many times? Are you aware that she inherited many of your worst traits, including addiction (to prescription drugs, not alcohol), a gift for verbal abuse, a perverse and insatiable need to manipulate the people around her if for no other reason than her own amusement, a compulsion to lie nearly every time she opens her mouth, and a voracious narcissism?
Would you agree with the following assertions?
1. Despite your death and preceding decades–long absence, you have acted as a kind of puppet master, using my mother as a kind of puppet, for her entire life.
2. I was raised by a broken puppet of a woman.
3. I was raised (it logically follows) by you.
I always say I never met you, but in fact, I did meet you, once, when I was a newborn and you held me briefly—just until my mother (then eighteen years old) noticed what you were doing and “tore” me out of your arms. Do you remember that encounter?
Do you remember me?
Do you think it’s possible for huge but unmappable portions of a person’s life to be shaped by a grandfather she (practically speaking) never met?
Do you think it’s possible that you don’t actually—never actually—existed but are merely a kind of mythical bogeyman? An extended nightmare? A lesson in evil that I have never managed to get through? Or one in forgiveness?
If you are a lesson (of one kind or another), why is it I can never get the pages of this lesson straight? That the order of these pages is always changing and rearranging? That these pages are constantly falling out of my hands and scattering at my feet and when I bend to pick them up, it’s a certainty that the wind will sweep them away before I get there. My hair is always in my eyes when I try to understand you; I can’t see a thing.
Did you know that I dream of you, on average, about once a year, and that in these dreams you are always a small, strangely insistent little man? Sometimes you are bald and almost golden in color. Sometimes your skin is stretched very tightly over your bones, like a corpse. Other times you are dark and faceless. I frequently find you loitering in filthy public toilets. You do things like steal tangerines and evade questions, disappear, and make my mother weep. Once, in one of these dreams, I cracked all the bones in your body. I broke them like charred chicken bones: they crumbled in my fingers. You didn’t even notice. My mother kept crying.
Would you like to hear something about me, my life?
Would you like to hear about my kids? I won’t tell you about them. Pick something else.
How about knitting?
Are you familiar with two–end knitting? It’s an old Swedish technique. You knit with two ends of a single ball of yarn, twisting the stitches around each other and in this way creating a flexible, double–thick (twice–as–warm) fabric. With a little extra effort, a line of purled stitches can be made to look like a delicate chain, and isolated purl stitches against a stockinette fabric look like tiny, playful o’s. These can be arranged to create elegant patterns of almost infinite variety. Indeed, some of the simplest but most subtly beautiful effects in all of knitting can be achieved with this old–fashioned method, although hardly anybody knows how to do it anymore. I myself have never knitted in this way, but I cherish a fantasy of someday traveling to Sweden in order to learn how to do it.
True or False? You had your own shelf in the family’s quite often otherwise empty refrigerator and on this shelf you kept specialty items, delicacies imported from your homeland, such as Limburger and Getost cheeses, licorice–flavored limpa bread, lingonberries, pickled herring, blood sausage, and raw sirloin, which you chopped very fine and ate with onions, capers, and raw eggs.
True or False? Although as a metallurgist (what is a metallurgist?) you made a decent salary, most of your money went to liquor, so that at times there was nothing much for your wife and seven children to eat. Sometimes all there was to eat were potatoes. Sometimes your wife didn’t bother to cook these and the children ate them raw, like apples.
True or False? You also had your own shelf in the living room (which doubled as your bedroom and which was paneled, when I knew it, with cheap, white wood–grain–patterned paneling, on which was duct taped a poster of running horses in a Wild West landscape saturated with the golden pink light of a setting sun) . . . anyway . . . in this room, there was a dresser, in the top drawer of which you kept your bottles of vodka, cartons of cigarettes, and boxes of thin mints, all of which was forbidden to your children and all of which was carefully pilfered by them anyway.
Are you actually human, or was your humanity at some point (perhaps very early in your life) destroyed?
Did your father ever molest you?
If you are no longer human, do you have any advice for those of us who are? For instance, how can we best keep ourselves human?
Does evil actually exist, or just bad and worse luck? Put another way, do you consider yourself evil? Do you think of yourself as being a bad person? (Wait. I know. That is not a fair question; bad and evil, after all, are not the same thing. Evil, like goodness or love, is an abstract concept—more of a noun than an adjective; there is an inhuman purity about it. Bad, on the other hand, is very human. It is optional; it is sometimes. Bad is poor decision making, poor judgment. Bad is lazy, somewhat random, and most of all selfish.) In any case, I am wondering about the other possibility: that you are neither bad nor evil, just very weak and very unlucky. Your thoughts?
Do you think that a certain ugliness can be said to characterize our family? And that this ugliness—be it sexual or physical abuse, mental illness, addiction, apathy, cruelty, or what have you—is a kind of inheritance, a gigantic and terrible medicine ball that has been passed down, generation to generation, for as far back as anyone can imagine?
In your opinion, do crooked genes play any part in the sad story of our family’s history, in its medicine–ball legacy, or has it mostly been a matter of crappy socioeconomic conditions—of poverty, lack of opportunity, and so on?
Do you think Hitler’s family had a similar medicine ball? Stalin’s? Attila the Hun’s?
How do you think such a medicine ball comes into being in the first place?
In your opinion, what is the best way to destroy this kind of medicine ball?
You met my paternal grandparents briefly, I believe, at my parents’ rushed and somewhat embarrassed wedding (my mother was already four months pregnant with me), and again at a dinner party at their house either shortly before or shortly after that event. It is my opinion that when my sister and I lived with my paternal grandparents for the first several years of our lives, our family’s medicine ball (which both Tracey and I were born carrying) actually shrank to a nearly manageable size because of our grandparents’ patience and ability to love—to give, that is to say, without taking. Do you feel any gratitude at all that these people (who were kind and more or less happy, although perhaps not super intelligent) managed this magic trick with our family’s bad, bad medicine ball? Or, as I rather suspect, do you not really give a fuck?
Do you consider it likely that my mother tried to marry you when she married my father? (My father had his problems, sure, but he was better than you. For instance, he never touched me or my sister, not the way you touched your girls.)
Speaking of which, what, exactly, were you after when you molested your daughters? A physical rush? A sense of omnipotence? An infantile form (clearly misguided) of revenge? Whenever I see or feel or touch (or even eat) something very tender (I am thinking, here, of how it used to feel to nurse my children, of how I felt when their little bird mouths would grope for my breast and their eagerness to nurse was frantic, nearly desperate), what I usually feel is a softening, a widening or opening in the area of my chest, in the back of my throat, around my jaw, and behind my eyes. It is a feeling I might describe, roughly, as a state of delicate awe, and whenever I feel it (which happens more often than not at odd moments in the face of odd things, things of a not easily discussed nature, such as an infant finding my nipple with his mouth), I sense everything go nearly still, both inside me and outside, all around me. I am, in other words, transported, however briefly, directly into the present, where I recognize something that may or may not be called my soul, something that seems, in any case, to be a large and gentle, unknown yet utterly familiar spiritual environment. It has occurred to me (though I suspect I give you far too much credit) that in an absurdly twisted way, when you pulled your daughters onto your lap and tugged down their panties, you were reaching for moments like this. Well, were you?
What do you think your father used to think about when he hit you with that willow switch or whatever it was?
What did you think about when he hit you with it?
What do you think your sons, the two oldest ones anyway (because according to the youngest, you spared him everything you visited so recklessly on the others; why?) what might they have thought about when you hit them?
What do you suppose your daughters thought about when you did the things you did to them?
What did you do to them, exactly? My mother’s obsessive belief that her teeth are rotting, her disturbingly successful attempts to destroy those teeth, her belief that the germs in her mouth are killing her, all these coupled with a recurring dream she once told me about (one she described this way: she is young again, a girl again, at a beach; a boy holds her down and pours sand into her throat; she can’t breath and believes she is dying; she wakes suicidal), these things clearly suggest certain acts. But this is just guesswork. Freudian assumptions. Are they correct?
Can you imagine your father as a little boy?
What about your father’s father?
What questions would you have liked to ask your grandfather on a questionnaire of your own making? (Please be specific.)
In asking these questions, would you be attempting, do you think, to give shape to a void? To define that void by describing the negative space around its negative space?
My mother as a little girl—please tell me some nice stories about her. Was there ever a time when she wasn’t completely focused on herself, when she wasn’t the self–hating narcissist (I’m sure you know just what I mean) I have always known, when she was somebody—a person with a self—not just the emptiness I have always known, when she was still curious, when she gave (nothing too big—a joke, a smile, a thoughtful response . . .) without taking? What was she like then? When she was happy, when she was whole, what were her eyes like?
Did you ever sing to her?
You were fragile, weren’t you? Like her, you were born weaker than some.
Still, I would like to make you pay for what you did even though, of course, it’s much too late for that. I would like, at least, to make you cry—and I would like your tears to be the bitterest kind and endless. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I could hurt you in some way—what would be the most effective way to do that? Or does someone like you live in a self–made purgatory where things couldn’t possibly get any worse no matter how inventive I got?
Do you ever find yourself curious about other people? Someone on a bus, maybe, or the person in front of you on line at the grocery store? Do you ever wonder about anybody beside yourself—what his or her life might be like, his or her struggles? Do you ever feel a secret tenderness for a perfect stranger, for some tiny part of a perfect stranger? A tuft of hair? A limp? A downy cheek? Do old people ever remind you of old dogs, and in this way inspire a quiet affection in you? When you were an old man, were you old like that? Did you shuffle in a charming way? Did your singsong accent trip over your shriveled tongue and wrinkled lips and endear you to people? Did you have a faint twinkle in your clouded eye? Did young women find you cute? Had you, by that point, forgiven yourself for all you had done? Had you, by then, forgotten?
Kim Adrian is the author of Sock, a Bloomsbury "Object Lessons" book. Her memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Her award winning essays and short stories have appeared in Tin House, Agni, the Raritan Review, Ninth Letter, Crazyhorse, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is the editor of The Shell Game: Writers Borrow Readymade Forms, and a Visiting Lecturer in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University.
“Questionnaire for My Grandfather” appears in our Winter 2009 issue.