sketching roots: the grandfather situation (autism spectrum stories)

I was encouraged to make“people-sketches” as a way of connecting my thoughts and experiences together. This all came about when I was asked to consider whether any other members of my family are on the autism spectrum; it then developed into a broader thought experiment: words as sense of the world; words as connection to others.  As for the family/spectrum question, “I don’t know” is the honest answer. I’m never comfortable retroactively applying concepts like that. For me, memory resists the intrusion of labels, making “sketches” a preferable alternative.

Memories; no particular order. Thought experiment: in progress.

I.

When I was a kid, grandfather spent most of his time in a workshop he’d built behind the house. It was small at first, just a single room with no windows. He kept adding on to it over the years, ultimately creating three additional larger rooms, each with a different purpose. He built one on each side of the shop, one in back. Crowding around that first small room, they seemed to hold it up in a ramshackle embrace.

This shop was grandfather’s solitude, his particular way of being alone.

II.

He loved welding. No one ever understood what, exactly, he was making, despite the fact that he would show us the end result. He would weld for hours most days, but his were jumbled, chaotic creations. Visually, it was hard to sort out the intended design. Still, he carried on. Anything you could put a torch to, he would weld and it didn’t matter if the whole thing went strange and tangled.

He went to a junk auction once a week, bought a heap of material…then spent the rest of the week meshing it all together. Thinking back, a small percentage of it made some kind of sense.

Some of it he would turn into a species of art. For example, one time he stood an anvil upright…welded a metal bucket to it’s tip…and melted rods to it’s sides for arms. He called it Anvil Man and, to grandmother’s dismay, displayed it prominently in the front yard. She fought back by planting marigolds in the bucket. That was her way of domesticating the thing.

Another time, he took a metal table, the kind you would use as patio furniture, and welded a bell-pole to the middle of it…for no particular reason. We kids would dare one another to hop on to the table and shake the poll back and forth, make a racket with the bell. Usually one of us would do it, ring the bell, until grandmother came out and pointed at the peach tree…her favorite place to find switches. Just the threat of it, the pointing, was enough. We would see that and move on.

With nuts and bolts and screws grandfather made tiny figurines…small metal men in a walking posture. You’d find them all over his shop: on top of door frames, stashed in drawers, lining every shelf. He gave all of them the exact same posture, that walking posture, so the room was filled with jaunty little men…arms swinging, legs kicking, going nowhere.

Welding in his shop, his solitude. That was his thing.

III.

Grandfather had no fondness for children, not even a little bit. We were noise, we were clutter. We didn’t contribute to his overall happiness, so he avoided us, stayed in his shop. If one of us went in to talk to him, he would ignore us most of the time. On a good day he might grunt and say, “I’m busy” or “Go play with the chickens.”

And we did, that was a popular thing when grandfather was busy. We’d chase the chickens around. We’d catch one and play pirates…pretend we had a captive on our sea-going vessel (an old door someone had left tilted against the shop; we laid it out flat, claimed it as a ship).

For awhile, grandfather owned a rooster that liked to sneak up on people and scratch at their legs. If you faced the rooster, it acted innocent, harmless. But the second you turned your back, it would make it’s move, strike out at your legs.

Aggressive little thing.

So we made a game of it…slowly walking backwards towards the rooster, daring it to leap…and then trying to sprint away the second it darted for us. Sometimes we would get away, other times it would get a few scratches in…at which point the victim would run around, theatrically screaming.

We loved the drama of the game. Grandfather loved that noisy grand-kids were potentially getting their due. No matter how busy he was in the shop, he would always come out and watch us play with the rooster. He would pull up a chair, root against us. It was one of the few times I would see him laugh.

IV.

My grandparents lived in a town where city services didn’t quite reach. They had plumbing, electricity, but no trash pick up.

Trash you heaped up in the yard and, a few times a week, burned.

This was the only way me and my cousins could bond with grandfather. You couldn’t talk to him because he was quiet. You couldn’t connect with him because he was solitary. But you could stand there and throw stuff into the fire and watch it burn. You could stand next to him and feel his presence.

Of course, as kids, we needed more. If he wouldn’t show affection…we would seek out his ire. Basic psychology; any reaction is more valuable than indifference.

Over and over, we would watch him build a fire…burn the weeks trash. And we little ones would sneak up behind him, empty cans of spray paint concealed behind our backs. We’d inch forward, acting innocent…toss the cans into the blaze and run off. He would yelp with annoyance, hurry away hunched over. The cans would pop, shoot debris.

He’d scold us, but we were okay with that. We just wanted his attention.

V.

He grew a huge garden. He’d put the frame together for a scarecrow each year…place clothes around it, stuff it with hay. But he couldn’t sew or draw, so he had grandmother make it a face of cloth. Inevitably, she’d give it a country-craft expression: bright eyes, red cheeks, girly eye-lashes, a curly smile. The least scary scarecrow you’ve ever seen. Grandfather would grumble and ask her to fix it and she’d just add dimples. It got cuter with each redo.

He’d put it up, this contended, happy thing and crows would flock to it, perch there for hours.

Obviously the look of it didn’t matter, the crows would have landed there anyway, but it irritated grandfather to no end. Every year, to create some sort of dissonance, he’d tie a row of pie-plates beneath it’s outstretched arms. They’d sway in the wind, clatter, make noise. I think in his mind that counter-balanced the scarecrows cuteness.

VI.

He served during World War II. There are pictures of him in uniform, stoic expression, almost glaring.

If you asked him what he did during the war, he’d mumble, “Peeled potatoes.” If you asked, “But did you do any fighting?” he would shrug and say, “Just peeled potatoes.”

I never found out what he did during the war. No one talked about it. I don’t think anyone knew.

VII.

He loved professional wrestling. That was the only TV he would watch on a regular basis. Saturday afternoons…without fail…he’d sink into his recliner…settle in…and watch tubby, grunting meat-men smash into one another for hours. I didn’t get it. I was more of a reader, so I looked on in confusion.

Even television, the ultimate in mindless communal bonding, we were unable to share.

Most weekends, once the wrestling shows were over, he’d move to the back porch, smoke a pipe…and flip through wrestling magazines. More smashing and meat-men; he couldn’t get enough of it.

He’d buy the magazines at a nearby truck stop. The truck stop had this long shelf along one wall that he always perused…it had magazines, VHS movies, dozens of cassette tapes featuring country music and southern comedians. Sometimes he would take me with him. He’d pick out the magazines quickly…then look at the VHS and cassette tapes…he rarely bought any of these, but you could tell he wanted to. He’d hold up a Burt Reynolds movie or a Charles Bronson movie…stare at the cover for awhile…put it back. The only time he bought anything other than a magazine: he picked out a VHS copy of a performance by Jerry Clower, a comedian popular in the South back in the day. He took it home…said to my grandmother, “Got this.” We watched it…they laughed so hard they had trouble breathing. They shook, went red in the face. I thought it was okay, he told some good stories.

Clower had that trademark howl; I could tell my grandparents liked hearing it.

VIII.

Wind, storms, their noise.

His shop smelled like machine oil and cut wood and discount tobacco. Smells that go all the way down, make the exact shape, in my mind, of grandfather. I can’t think of him without feeling steeped in those things.

Generally, he was taciturn and solitary, but when it rained he became even more inward. I don’t know where he went when that happened. My mom was the same way. And grandmother.

I remember, as a kid, that if I was with them and it rained, they became perfectly still. We would be in the house, hear storm sounds, and the room would suddenly feel oppressive, wrong. Mom, grandparents…they would sit quietly, tense, staring at the wall.

I would run outside, cross the sheets of rain, and hide in grandfather’s shop. I’d lie flat, smell the oil and wood, wait out the storm.

Leaves tumbling outside. Rain pacing the roof; thunder stomping.

The shop that was grandfather’s solitude…I’d burrow my senses into it, hide from the memories of others.

Other family stories: Christmas with Aspergers; me and my dad watch a crappy movie together; little brother and the plastic bears; my sensory issues confuse the parents. And you can find more autism spectrum discussions on the Invisible Strings Twitter and Facebook page.
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