As I first wrote about in my diary “A Letter From Einstein”, my home is currently filled with dozens of dusty boxes that I’m slowly working my way through, archiving my family history. My mother’s father a man of prominence for his place and time, most of the dozens are filled to bursting with his life.
My father is represented by two boxes, recently arrived from the family storage unit. My brothers tasked with clearing out my dad’s room after my parents’ deaths, I didn’t even know the boxes existed and was despairing at ever knowing more about his side of the family.
An only child, he lost his young, loving mom to pneumonia when he was five and was dropped off to live with his paternal grandparents while his traveling salesman dad spent his life on the road chasing fortune’s dreams. The grandparents not high on warmth or welcome, my dad basically raised himself and developed a hard shell for sheer survival. By the time I came along, he was a Stanford-grad engineer courtesy the GI Bill, and he and my mom were raising their three on a comfortable tree-lined street, my grandfather a distant voice on the phone calling from Michigan a few times a year. He came out to California to visit us maybe three times before his death, my mom having to train us out of our habit of calling him by his first name, picked up from our father. I was too young to understand the terms of their estrangement, but did get that his visits were for our – the kids – benefit. This silver-haired man, dapper dressed with shiny shoes and silk pocket square, my only living grandparent.
The first of my dad’s two boxes I opened was the one containing the remnants of my grandfather’s life. His little leather address book with his traveling sales contacts, reading like something out of an Arthur Miller play. Wedding photos from his last – and lasting – marriage, a happy one after several not so. Proud mementos from his WWI service in France. A plaque honoring his decades-long membership in the S.A.E. (Society of Automotive Engineers). Each like a piece of a puzzle to a man I barely knew.
Next out of the box came a small color photo: my grandfather in his sleek suit standing alongside a gentleman in a rumpled suit and dark-rimmed glasses holding a large silver trophy in his right hand. On the back my grandfather had written: “St. Louis June 1967 – when Jimmy Caras won Worlds Championship”. From the google I pulled up a July, 1967 article from Sports Illustrated on the recently concluded U.S. Pocket Billiards Championship won by Jimmy Caras, 58, of Springfield, Pa. He’d won four world titles in 1936, ’38, ’39 and 1949, and had come out of semi-retirement twelve years later to take one last run at the title, joining fellow competitors like the Knoxville Bear, Weenie Beanie Staton and Machine Gun Lou Butera. My grandfather traveled to St. Louis to cheer on his old friend.
I looked at this photo and smiled, instantly transported to my favorite memory of my Grandpa. The rare times he had come to visit there was one constant: regaling us with stories of his pool hall past, from playing against Minnesota Fats in his younger days to repping a Pool Table company in his present. My parents’ unease at this topic – pool halls barely a step above bordello in their view – was in contrast to the kids utter delight, my oldest brother especially pumping him for details.
I put the photo next to my computer and continued my digging, discovering blueprints and legal correspondence for a new type of pool cue tip he had successfully patented, along with several local newspaper articles touting his success. The articles contained new biographical info that helped fill in his story, including the news that he put himself through college by playing pool. He’d arrive at the pool hall early Saturday morning, have all his meals delivered in, hustle until late Sunday night, then go home and get ready for class.
During his first visit, when I was around 8, after a morning talking pool he expressed the wish to show us his stuff. My father safe at work, my oldest brother and he sprang into action, grabbing the phone book and phone, working their way down the list trying to find a pool hall open and kid friendly. Finally my brother hit on it. The miniature golf course had a pool table inside! A few smooth-talking words later, my grandfather having convinced them to open up early just for us, we piled into the car and were off, our waving mother thinking Grandpa was treating us to a round of mini-golf.
We walked into the game arcade and the Employee nodded us over to the table. The three kids took our spots at each side while Grandpa chose his cue, balancing each in his hand one by one until satisfied. He lined up his shots. Then one after another, he performed tricks perfected over 60 years with ease. A crowd began to form, as the mini-golfers outside along with every employee in the place came in to see what was up. Soon they were cheering and applauding each move, Grandpa beaming, brothers and I basking in the glow.
A few months later we got a surprise package at the door: a brand new bumper pool table, courtesy of Grandfather, a current sales rep for the company. To my parents everlasting credit, they yielded to our passionate entreaties and set the table up in our den, a room whose square footage barely fit the current couch and arm chair, a crack in the window a lasting reminder of a vigorous bank shot. My parents took comfort in the fact it was a bumper pool table, so you know, not so Sodom & Gomorrah-y. We instantly became the cool house on the block, and as youngest and only girl I had to wait my turn. But I got it, and in my little girl scout dress waiting for the troops to arrive, would sink each ball off the mark with one shot cold.
The two boxes that contain my father’s side of life may pale in comparison with the abundance on my mother’s side, but the meager contents are yielding far larger rewards. My father was never a good communicator, and the keepsakes go a long way to explaining why, but he left me and my brothers a little treasure box of stories. With a turn of a key and the help of the Internet, new chapters of our history are filled in, leaving clues to the next.
The pool cue tip patent articles on my Grandfather revealed an accomplished engineer whose talents passed on to my father and then to my brother. A man who loved to travel with passport to match. And a man who yearned to be remembered as a man of accomplishment. The articles were illustrated by a photo of my Grandfather bending over a pool table, about to perform a trick. A very familiar trick. I smiled again.
For the finale back in the mini-arcade, he had carefully lined up each ball in an arc, positioning each just so, anticipation building. He picked up his stick and tapped the ball at the end sending a a little shockwave through the rest with the last ball the only one to move, gently rolling into the corner pocket. It may not have been the most difficult trick, but it sure looked good.
As the crowd roared two guys on my left shared looks of amazement. I looked up into their smiling faces and said “that’s my grandpa”.