The roads you travel so briskly lead out of dim antiquity, and you study the past chiefly because of its bearing on the living present and its promise for the future.
--Lieutenant General James G. Harbord
My grandfather, James Hutton L. Sr., died yesterday after a short decline due to his heart failing. His book remains a proud item on my website, wherefrom the above quote is shamelessly purloined. Papa and I will update the biography page with his date of death soon, I suppose.
Granddaddy had a unique flavor of personality that I've never encountered in anyone else. He was a solid man, building his life block by considered block, yet he didn't live a small or narrow life in any sense. He took huge risks for his era - living abroad in wild places, bucking his culture's racism, fighting in the South Pacific, accepting his son's homosexuality, gambling on small oil wells and timber plantations - yet each step of his life was so beautifully rational that, when talking about it, he never presented these things as the marvels they were, merely as obvious blocks in a practical existence.
Some of it, I'm sure, is generational. He had the ability to think slowly and thoroughly on a subject, unwinding chains of consequences in his mind, and only then presenting his deliberations in conversation. As much as we all laughed at it, I think one of the most wonderful things Granddaddy did was close his eyes mid-sentence, searching for a word, pausing so long we figured he was asleep, and then carefully articulate the exact word, continuing on in his considered style of speaking.
He is one of the few examples of small wisdom I have been close to - the wisdom of little intersections, of balanced, medium thoughts. I remember his pronouncements on Mugabe a couple years ago. In a few short sentences, he addressed perspective, talking about how both Zimbabwe and our country viewed Mugabe when he emerged, the transformation over time, and now, reviewing the consequences to the people of Zimbabwae. I think he ended with the milquetoast statement, "Well, it's a shame."
He was comfortable in facts, so much more likely to consolidate a chain of facts than to offer some emotional response to a situation. An easy adjective to reach for is Scholarly, and, yes, he was a scholar, but a pragmatic one, not meeting many of the stereotypes of a dusty, hair-askew professor. I began reading his book last night (yes, for the first time - it is really, really dry). Without embellishment or unnecessary adjectives, it launches directly into facts and figures, well balanced to explain the narrative. It shows in his choice of the quote above, a quote lyric with poetic weight, yet eminently practical.
Yet, Granddaddy's personality was not dry. His room at the retirement home was so deliciously different from the others, covered in African and Pakistani art. It is hard to express how unusual the parade of masks, weapons, brass sculpture and brilliant kente cloth looked in contrast to the stuffy dried flower arrangements and pastel paintings in the other rooms.
To paint a quick picture of the wonderful tension between usual and unusual in him: when I emptied his car for donation when he was 90 or so, I found a long machete in the trunk, in a nice army-green nylon sheath. When queried about the various items in his car and their dispensation, he frankly explained how he had used it for hacking down kudzu and vines. Well, of course. A machete. In the back of a 90-year-old man's car.
I think of this man returning in the late 1960s to the deep South from Ghana, carting home wild brasses and ebony statues of topless women, wearing his ebullient tie-dye shirts, in stiff Nehru short-sleeved cotton. He's establishment, still uncomfortable with Keynesian economics, conservative at all costs, yet worlds apart from his peers, and wearing the riot of color of the hippies of the day. Because they are great shirts, of course. His taste, I am glad to say (though others may be sorry) lives on in me.
We don't have templates in this year 2008 for the kind of antinomianism that Granddaddy practiced. His divergences were not for show. They were an older kind of differentness. He chose what he chose, bullheadedly, stubbornly perhaps, but without the mythos of counter-culture to support him.
Coming from the South, his attitude towards black people was fairly advanced. He wrote letters to the paper ("Our nation's great shame") stating we, the nation, owed a great reparation for the poverty inflicted on our own. A year or so ago, when the videotape had run out on the interview I was doing with him, he told a story about how he found a little black girl hurt in a ditch when he was young - I imagine 6 to 10 or so - and helped her home. His mother said that it was a brave thing to do. He told me this story flatly but with pride, as if it marked something he wanted to be known for.
Note that this attitude did not translate into marches or protests. Instead, he tried to found a scholarship fund at an HBC, and he respected his black colleagues in Africa as people. It seems he felt guilt over his acquiescence earlier in his life to the South's practices, but I respect that it moved him to action. In my life, other than when irritated at nurses whose accents he couldn't understand, I never heard him use race or origin as a way to degrade someone. He resisted the racism I even sometimes see in my colleagues, frustrated with the progress in the developing nations they serve in. Why? Because he knew better. He saw the world clearly enough to know that poverty and progress had plenty to do with economics and culture, but nothing to do with race.
Granddaddy was woodenly playful - woofing laughter at jokes we made, playing with words ("got to get my wumpus into the car" he'd say as we helped him lower onto the Sentra's passenger seat), chuckling avuncularly at devilish things I'd shout down his failing ear canals. I loved telling him edgy or naughty things slowly and clearly - it was so obvious that his mind was still agile and ready for such tales, yet it was hard for anything but the saccharine and mundane to get through in the nursing home environment. Granddaddy was not overwhelmed by prudery nor overwrought by lasciviousness, as so many people are as they enter old age. Though much of his last months were clouded by the tiredness of his body, it was the clouding just as I get when exhausted, not a change of persona or sundering of brain.
The last time we left him, last May, he was wearing a loud red cardigan and a cap, and clumsily bumping back into his room. I remember clutching John's arm in agony, knowing it would likely be the last time I saw him. It is hard to say goodbye to someone so beloved and it is hard to sketch a beloved person in a few paragraphs. You, gentle reader, see evidence of both my attempts here today.Posted by argus at February 5, 2008 11:42 AM