Grandpa and I are standing by the wooden fence that holds my cousin’s horses. They aren’t skittish, but they stand just out of reach and flick their ears with watchfulness and flies. It’s full summer in Wisconsin, all grass and the scritch-scritch of insects in the grass. We talk about my cousin and her riding, about horses. I’ve always played city mouse to my country cousins, which is slightly fraught because my Grandpa is a man who has definite ideas about right living which center on small town life. He is second generation Danish from a small town in Iowa, and while he is fiercely progressive in much of his life philosophy, he retains a certain near-stoic near-asceticism which doesn’t mesh with my nuclear family’s outlook. I knew, even as a child, not to talk about certain things certain ways with Grandpa, how he would…maybe not misunderstand, but certainly not respect our city life. And our city life is the detached single-family suburban sprawl of Minneapolis, so city is certainly relative.
I’m not sure how we start talking about this, but we get onto the subject of SSRIs – drugs like Prozac which affect brain chemistry, which were, even when this conversation occurred, being prescribed like candy. Grandpa was a doctor in the Navy during the War, and then attached to the nascent Marines, the raiders who would go out on lethal missions onto the scads of tiny islands between Australia and Japan. He doctored for both battles of Guam and Guadalcanal, in addition to an unremembered number of conflicts spraying out into the Pacific Rim. He never much talked about the War, least not to me anyway, but I was a child and there was no place for those stories. We knew there was something wrong when the stories started, stories that had always been stoppered, for better or for worse, by my Grandma’s almost harsh pragmatism. My Grandma runs family mythology like knitting, the way she knits anyway, the quickness of her hands in sharp contrast with how bent and gnarled they are by long-term arthritis. “Chris,” she would say when he started in a vein she didn’t approve of, and then quick deflections into topics more tractable. When he could or did ignore her machinations, which are at Sun Tzu levels of mastery, it was an indication of a deeper wrongness. Senior dementia was in the process of erasing him year by year until he was somewhere near six in the year his mother died, at the piano she taught him to play before she left him. It stops my heart still to think of how much pain he still carried from her loss, ninety years later on the eve of his passing.
Here, I knew that the process was beginning, but not where it would take him. Next to the wooden stile that penned my cousin’s horses, we’re talking about Prozac, and about medicine and psychology and all of that. He’s been retired for a long time, over a decade, maybe more like two. I know he worked for years at a low income clinic after his retirement. Eventually he had to let his medical licence lapse because there is so much need out there that he kept getting sucked into the brutal hours of doctoring he had enjoyed his entire working life. I run the line about how pharmaceutics are not candy, and SSRIs are being used to treat grief like grief is unnatural. He agrees, in the sense that his view of psychology has always been based on will. He is a man of his generation, and getting over it is as getting over it does, and they did. Unless they didn’t.
I sure wish we had had something like that during the War though.
I was getting ready to ship out again. I had already done a tour in the South Pacific. The ship was in the process of filling up with soldiers, many of whom had not seen action, who were just out of basic training with their squeaky boots. But there were a number of soldiers who had seen combat, piling back onto a ship that would bring them back to that. One man snapped. He was in full gear, with a 70 lb bag on his back. He saluted – ten hut! (Here Grandpa snaps a salute.) And then walked off the edge of the ship into the water. Soldiers scrambled, throwing off their own gear and diving in to water to fish him out. He was screaming uncontrollably. They hauled him off to the brig because that was the only place they could contain his breakdown. His screams reverberated through the metal bones of the ship until someone knocked him out with phenobarbital, but he’d just start screaming again when he came to. All those young men just out of basic listened to the ship they were boarding scream. We had no real way to treat the injuries in the mind.
This isn’t the voice of my Grandpa. This is me trying to remember him as hard as I can, but it keeps slipping, and I am too much me to recreate him. If you could see me, I could recreate with my body which has some of his genetic tendencies the way he laughed and held his hands and hunched, but it wouldn’t be exactly right, two generations and a gender displaced from him, all those years displaced from the War, the years from this conversation, the years from his death. So much is gone. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck – I had never heard anything like this from him. I have the vague sense that there was someone else there, maybe a younger cousin, but it might have been me simply blown out of myself with shock. We would hear more war stories as the years wore on. My sister and I would collect them and show them to each other. Did you hear the one about the shelling on the beach? About running the wrong way during a retreat and almost ending up on the wrong side of the line? “Hey doc,” the rear guard said, “Where’re you going?” I wish, in a way, I’d tried more diligently to collect them, but I know it was an impossibility. He became so frail, and there’s no way Grandma would allow that line of questioning, even if I’d thought it was a good idea.
Which is why Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds Historytowers as a narrative about familial and historical traumas, about the way we talk to our parents and grandparents about the fucked up shit they had to endure out there in the ugly mess of history. Art Spiegelman and I are not real similar people; our parents and grandparents did not have the same experiences; we are not from the same places. Spiegelman’s parents, Polish Jews, survived Auschwitz. Maus is the strange lapping recounting of that survival, his dad on a exercise bike or fighting with his second wife, Art fighting hard against his father’s disapproval and the memory of his mother’s suicide. The story keeps folding on itself, Art drawing panels which his father sees and then comments on, this secondary conversation through the oblique public performance that keeps collapsing the narratives, rendering it all into this wash of the meaningful and unmeaningful acts that make up our familiar conversations. It puts me on a wooden fence with my Grandpa who had begun his long, slow erasure of memory to his death, and beyond. It’s bananas.
It’s so fiercely honest, not just the history, but the ways Art and his dad fail to connect at times. I loved my Grandpa, of course, but sometimes he was a difficult and rigid man, and the ways Spiegelman captures the affection, respect, and complete irritation with our loved ones was perfect for me. My Father Bleeds History is uncompleted, the elder Spiegelmans just committed to Auschwitz, and Art and his father just beginning to talk more openly about the comic Art is creating. Of course I’m reading the second part the second I get my hands on it.