Memories of My Grandfather
His name was Carroll Schenck, and he died in 1989, when I was in kindergarten. He is the only close family member of mine that has died, and he died before I knew what dying meant.
My memories of being with him hold within them the vagueness of youth; however, this allows me a sort of “direct memory”—I can remember many details about him. He was a dying man for the time he and I were both alive. Despite this, Carroll always had a smile—his grandchildren brought him much pleasure, and he was a happy man who loved life.
Harlan, Iowa, was where my parents and two younger brothers lived, an hour north of Red Oak, my father’s hometown, where Grandpa and Grandma Schenck lived. Grandma still lives in the same house there, alone, at age 91. We traveled there often; I knew the road well.
My cousins, Stephen and Sarah from Omaha, were often with us in Red Oak. We’d play downstairs, where my grandfather had put a huge billiards “snooker” table, used from a pool hall, where he’d play with some of his other old friends. At age five, I would reach over the edge of the table and push the balls.
One day after playing like this, Carroll and I had a late-night snack: some Cheerios with sugar on top, a delicious treat that my parents had never showed me. We sat together in the dimly-lit kitchen, as my family sat in the living room, watching TV. What I remember was Grandpa’s trembling hand, for he had diabetes.
“Why are your hands shaky, Grandpa?” I asked, unsurely, knowing something was wrong.
“I’m fine,” he answered. “Do you like the sugar on your cereal?”
“Yes, it’s good,” I said. In my youth I was a shy boy who did not talk often, so I left it at that.
The trembling of his hand was sad, because for the time that I knew my grandfather, he was dying, slowly. Pictures of him quickly change from a healthy man to a sick man in the 1980s. Grandma and Grandpa took a trip to Tennessee to visit my uncle Ron and his family. Weakened, Carroll stands with dignity with the woman he loved.
Children can sense negative energy almost directly, and I have no memory of any negativity from Grandpa, or Grandma, or in their house, for that matter. Stepping outside the socializing with the family, Carroll would drop down to his basement shop, his hobby where he would fiddle with electronics and do woodworking. Stepping down there in my adulthood, the space is small. With Grandpa in there, he was hunched over something, focused on the job at hand. Whether due to his sickness or not, he was not a man that dominated his space; he had nothing to prove, it seemed.
I went down into the workshop, “What are you doing, Grandpa?”
“I’m working on this circuit,” he said, showing me.
In that downstairs space, hung up on a ceiling beam, was a Japanese katana sword, which fascinated my cousins and me. It’s still down there in the basement, and I have only touched it a few times, and have never seen it taken out of its sheath.
Later I learned that Carroll had been in World War II, as an “old man,” because as a volunteer at age 26, he was much older than the other boys and men being drafted. He opted to be a technician, and as far as I know right now, all he did was fix radio communications devices in Asia. Later, according to my uncle, when his three sons were of draft age during the Vietnam War, he was very worried about them being drafted, although his politics were strongly conservative, like most working people in Southwest Iowa.
Carroll and his 1960s academic hippie son Robert got into an argument during that time. Born a Mormon but a convert to Lutheranism upon marrying my grandma, a 100% Swede whose grandparents spoke Swedish, he was a conservative Christian. After being prodded by Robert’s anti-war ideas, Carroll said, “Jesus was a religious extremist!”
Like this, so much else of my knowledge of my grandfather is secondhand. One thing my father and two uncles agree on is that his great downfall was the military discipline he insisted on enforcing on his sons. He would spank, or “whip,” them when they misbehaved, to a surprisingly late age, according to my father and uncle—age fourteen, or until they “didn’t cry,” as Robert said.
Discussing his upbringing with Robert and me in my teenage years, my father recounted one scene from Carroll’s discipline. After misbehaving as a young man around age eight, my father Richard said as he was leaning over for his discipline, “Why do you have to spank me?"
Carroll replied, “I like it.”
And my father said as a grown man, “From that time, I hated him.”
Carroll’s use of intimidation is a longtime conflict, the kind of which plays out over generations. That side of my grandfather I never knew, but it changes my memory of him. I know now that he held many of the received assumptions and prejudices of his generation. While he treated his wife Kathryn with utter love and softness, he insisted on being an authority figure for his sons. Like true children of the 1960s, Robert, Ronald, and Richard responded by raising their children without spanking and other threats, like Dr. Spock, the child psychologist, directed. Therefore, Carroll directly influenced the way I was raised.
However, it was not too many times that I actually was around Grandpa, unless I can’t remember correctly. Very strongly do I have a memory of his death, however. Recalling that time, I remember the compassion that I had for my grandma, and the broken look that she had on her face, that I could not understand.
Since then, I’ve never had the experience of grieving people in small rooms sitting together, but I remember what it was like. My parents brought my four-year-old brother Paul and me into their bedroom, with the midday light pouring in.
“Your Grandpa died,” my dad said. I looked at him dumbfounded, knowing that there was a thing called dying, but unsure of what it meant. During that time, I noticed the lack of emotion on my father Richard’s face, although he showed an extreme tiredness. He has always been a logical and unemotional man, as per his career as a small-town attorney.
A few days later, we were meeting with the rest of the family in my grandparents Red Oak home. Discussing the events downstairs with my cousins Stephen and Sarah, three years older than me, Stephen blurted out:
“He shot himself.”
Sarah said insistently, “You’re not supposed to tell them that.”
Again, I didn’t understand the meaning of these things. The day went on as usual with playing; I don’t remember how one member of the family was missing; it seemed Grandpa’s disappearance was natural.
On a sunny spring day with big clouds, the family stepped into a small white funeral home, with the pews a little more than half-full. They were all adults, of course, and many of the older people had been introduced to me by my grandparents, only a handful of which are still alive.
I stayed close to my father during the visitation of the corpse. Stepping up to look at my grandfather in the coffin, I saw his still-dark hair, his powdered face, but without his usual glasses.
“He looks alive,” I said to my dad.
“That’s right,” he said in a hushed tone; I knew to stay quiet.
There were the hymns and many flowers. I remember my uncle Robert looking different, because he had worn a suit—he usually wore casual clothes since he was a college professor. We went to the park afterward, the one near the big orange tower that is Red Oak’s landmark, and enjoyed the clean air and sun.
Much later, as an adult, I learned the true story of Carroll’s death in a memoir Robert wrote. After quitting smoking in his sixties, Carroll put on a fair amount of weight. Then he got diabetes, and which caused him to go almost completely blind, to the point where I never saw him drive—Grandma drove, since she could see. Ironically, Grandma Schenck, who had been completely deaf after surviving meningitis in the 1930s, had the eyes, while Grandpa had the ears.
The loss of his sight and the inability to use of his hands really took away the things Carroll loved to do, especially with his hands. He looked like a dying man, and when his kidneys failed and he was told he’d have to go on dialysis, he made a plan, in his organized way. My grandma went away to do an errand, and my great-uncle Harvey, Carroll’s brother, came over for coffee, just like he did regularly. Except this time, Carroll laid dead in his garage.
He had shot himself sitting in a chair, with a large tarp underneath, knowing that Harvey would find him. The bullet went into his open mouth and then into his brain, and may not have even exited his skull. This was why he looked “alive,” as I thought as a boy.
In an organized way, with his dignity intact, he killed himself. I would not apply the word suicide to what Grandpa did. He faced a slow death with his organs failing, and his blindness meant that he could not do much of anything in his life. But up until the end, he smiled with his grandchildren, and never intimated any depression or anger, although his bearing and posture indicated his sadness.
Today, I look back on my life, and the work, work, work I have done: from academics to road construction to working on a huge hog farrowing facility, among many other jobs I’ve done since age fourteen. I’ve never been fired or laid off, and have only stopped a job in order to get a better one. Although I had no natural skills with blue-collar jobs, I still worked hard. This resulted in a few hilarious situations: me accidentally putting diesel in a gasoline truck twice in one week, me flattening a truck tire out in a field, and always having zero technical skills.
But it’s all the same—work. That’s really what Grandpa handed off to his Schenck clan. Somehow, none of his sons got his technical skills, but in my approach to doing a given job, I often think of Carroll’s auto parts stores in Shenandoah and Red Oak. I imagine the honesty and integrity he had, the cleanliness and order of his shop, the knowledge he had in order to serve his customers, and the good standing he held in the community.
Meeting a new person, he would proudly introduce his family: “These are my sons Robert, Ronald, and Richard. This is my wife Kathryn. She can’t hear, but she reads lips.” All I can hope for in my life is to be as staid and dependable as he was for his family, to do the job at hand to the best of my ability, and represent the Schenck name with the dignity of Carroll.