About: “March 15, 1910…”
“March 15, 1910 Grampie was” is a warning story. It is a description of life during a time in America that some have recently called “great.” In particular, the essay compares certain aspects of the narrator’s life in America, 1980 with aspects of his life in New Zealand, 2016, providing a insider-on-the-outside’s perspective of the current political climate in the United States.
The story involves three main characters: Grampie, Charlie, and the narrator, with mention of one minor character, Uncle Bill. Frequent use of “we” suggests other background characters, though we never meet them.
This is not the first of the author’s stories about Grampie. Others include “The Lawnmower,” “About Time,” and the more recent “Grampie was an expert pincher.” He figures into “Redemption” as a minor character. In these, Grampie is marked by a “grumpy” demeanour, sometimes given more to grunting than talking. He is known as stingy with praise, possibly a perfectionist, and offering criticism more often than advice. At the same time, we know Grampie cared deeply for the narrator, if only for his presence in the narrator’s life, as well as at least one protective warning to the narrator’s father, referenced in section one of “Redemption”:
“I remember Grampie, standing in his kitchen when my dad came to pick us up. We lived there for a while after the split. This was Grove Road, where he’d raised his little girl, my mom. Now, a cheating drunk no good son of a bitch had the nerve to darken the door to exercise his rights, one day a week, while his mistress went out shopping. Keep your goddamned hands clean and keep sober around them and so help me if they get a scratch. The good memories in that kitchen, the days of playing piano in the other room and singing Glenn Miller and shooting pool in the basement and dealing setback under the cuckoo clock in the dining room. They were gone then, and even further gone now.”
“March 15” opens with a scene where the narrator descends into Grampie’s basement to play pool on an old table. Besides the description of the environment, full of under-used items and a general sense of clutter, we learn that Grampie taught the narrator the basics of the game.
After racking and breaking the balls, the narrator calls to Grampie and expresses his hope that he will join the game. The author repeats this structure at the end of the essay, tellingly, when the narrator’s son calls to him to play “Hot Wheels.”
It is unclear whether Grampie joins the pool game on this occasion, but we learn that on the occasions he does join, they enjoy a good paternal relationship with respect to teaching and learning. We imagine the narrator to have felt a strong bond with Grampie, as suggested in the essay’s opening paragraph: “There’s something about him still around. Maybe I’m keeping that something alive, maybe not. But there’s something, keeps me thinking.”
Lunch, which followed the pool game in this case, usually consisted of hot dogs or canned spaghetti, both notoriously inexpensive foods and easy to prepare. We can imagine that, with Grampie as primary care provider, the family was likely of a lower income bracket. Additionally, the mention of Uncle Bill occurs here in the context of recycling empty food cans to repair an automobile, and Grampie is said to be living on Social Security, supporting this economic claim.
After lunch, they sit, sometimes playing cards. Sitting is a common state for Grampie, it seems. The narrator rarely describes him in the midst of any activity. Indeed, Grampie’s kitchen chair’s position by the window figures prominently in the story, mentioned as well in the author’s prior “Grampie was an expert pincher.” Later the narrator describes Grampie’s Morris chair as torn and delapidated, suggesting an abundance of use. It is fair to conclude that Grampie often sits.
The author previously provided some insight into Grampie’s character in “Long Distance“:
“Grampie would walk from the next street over where he and Uncle Bill lived. Until Grampie had his big heart attack, he’d have a Manhattan and a corncob pipe, every holiday dinner. He’d leave early to catch Archie Bunker or Wheel of Fortune back at the house, sitting in his Morris chair in front of his black and white Phillips in a room unchanged since his wife died twenty something years prior. I never met her. He never talked about her. But I understand now why he went back home on the holidays. He couldn’t let us see his tears.”
Grampie conceals his emotions, which is not unexpected of a man of his generation. Though concealing the superficiality of his emotions, we often see Grampie expressing those emotions in his actions, or in this case, in his inactions, suggesting chronic sadness.
Section one of “March 15” ends with a story about Grampie and a coworker co-discovering a dime, sometime during the Depression. The two are unable to decide who should keep the coin, so, both being machinists, they return to their shop and cut the dime in half and each keep a piece.
This is a sharp juxtaposition to the Grampie we know from “Grampie was an expert pincher,” where his notorious penny pinching is on full display. In “March 15,” Grampie is later described as having been a hard worker prior to his retirement. We are left to imagine that he was relatively well off in his working years — well off enough to cut a dime in half during the Depression. He had a house, a piano, a pool table. But now times are leaner.
The section ends, somewhat cryptically, with the line-broken sentence:
“what memories are.”
In recent essays the author has used this broken line technique, though not in a poetic way. Instead, he seems to ask the reader to slow down and, perhaps, consider the narrator’s choice of phrasing, or to consider the idea presented more closely than a casual reading demands.
“This is what memories are” suggests to us that the preceding scene and story shows us something about the nature of memories. Though we know Grampie to be a grumpy man, perhaps suffering from a form of depression, and we know the family to be economically disadvantaged, the narrator’s descriptions are generally positive. Even in the clutter of the basement, and even with the poor conditions of the pool table, and other general features of the house we’ve learned of in previous works, the narrator expresses optimism. He calls to Grampie enthusiastically, and likely finds comfort in the basement environment around the pool table. After all, here is where he’s chosen to play, alone.
Section two of “March 15” begins with a reference to the year in which the scene in section one was to have taken place, namely the year Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States, 1980. Here we learn more about Grampie’s past. He had worked blue collar jobs, and by the narrator’s account, had worked hard, resulting in a “broken” retirement, perhaps explaining his general inactivity, or perhaps a metaphor elucidating his state of mind. At this point, the essay takes a political turn, especially in the following: “I suppose Reagan spoke to that spirit. That broken spirit.” The narrator expands his scope by now characterising a whole class of people rather than his more-familiar, focused descriptions of individuals. In this case, the narrator perceives a “broken spirit” among the US electorate.
The transitional sentence, “And that was OK,” suggests that Reagan’s “[speaking] to that spirit” comforted an otherwise disquieted electorate, including Grampie.
The three paragraphs that follow describe three forms of discrimination, which are fairly attributable to Grampie, partly because the narrator describes the discrimination in colloquial terms, likely supposed to emulate Grampie’s speech patterns. In the first, the narrator learns that it’s OK to wish an African-American family would move out of the neighbourhood, the reason given that “they steal.” We imagine “they” refers to a race rather than a family.
The second discrimination is against homosexuals. In this case, they are objects of jokes, and the narrator has been warned not to talk to them, we imagine out of some disembodied fear of predation.
The third discrimination is against Jewish people, describing them as cheats. In this paragraph we do not hear of a particular instance of a cheating Jewish person, underwriting the fact that the discrimination is about groups and not individuals. Furthermore, in an extremely compressed dialogue, we learn that the narrator has been told that Jews will go to Hell, suggesting a willingness on Grampie’s part to engage in religious persecution or religious discrimination.
Following these paragraphs is the refrain “All of this was OK.” Following that, “And Reagan was president, speaking to the broken.” Taken together, we imagine that the comfort a particular segment of the electorate found in Reagan’s message was a lifting of “correctness” that had followed the Civil Rights movement in the US. Indeed, the preceding three paragraphs represent white working class sentiment, laid bare. But there is a twist. The sentence to follow: “And I was 7.”
The narrator re-stating his young age signals a dark turn in the essay. Here we see a young child influenced by what we might call a “political movement” to withdraw from civil social discourse and interactions. We might even imagine the child playing alone in a cluttered basement a metaphor representing this cultural shift to cultural isolationism and social withdrawal.
The sentences that follow are an inventory of various items in the house, all of which are quite old: relics of the past, we might say. Section two ends in another line-broken statement:
“was the last time America was great.”
With this, we are able to chart the course of the essay so far. Whereas section one was an optimistic picture of a simple time, section two shows us that same picture of that same time from another angle. Given the author’s frequent use of memories, and given the line-broken ending of the first section telling us clearly that memory is his concern in this essay, it is fair to say that section two is an alternative rendering of section one. Section two peers behind rosy memories, and behind those memories we find broken, prejudiced, inactive people imposing those same characteristics on, in this case, their grandchildren. This, we might say, is history cycling into inevitable repeat.
Taken together, these sections are the author’s commentary on the nature of memory. In the first case, the narrator’s memories are sentimental and optimistic. In the second case, the narrator’s memories are raw and distinctly unsentimental. Yet they are memories of the same person in the same period. In this, we see memory as a complex storytelling form. Memory is not, in and of itself, the past; memory is a retelling of the past, and retelling necessarily involves selection and subjectivity, a curation of sorts.
The author shows us that a nostalgic view of a time when “America was great” involves that same subjective selection and curation of memories. It seems a short jump to the current political climate, where a large segment of the electorate advocates “making America great again.” The author is warning us: if we want what once was, we’re best to look closely at that want. The author’s experience of the last time America was great was, from at least one angle, dark, marked by prejudice and poverty. We imagine the author does not desire a return to this condition.
Section three shifts to current time, the narrator now living in New Zealand with a six year old son, Charlie. After noting that Grampie would have known little of New Zealand, including its location, and noting that the narrator would not have known this either had he not travelled, we find parallels to the narrator’s memories in sections one and two.
A chair angled out the kitchen window where the narrator watches a harbour, a cuckoo clock on the wall, guitars, a rugby club nearby, bicycles: these all remind the narrator of his own childhood, with obvious correlates from his earlier memories. However, the narrator tells us, referring to his son: “His memories won’t be like mine, I think, yet then again, they will be nearly identical.” In this the narrator reveals a sort of modesty coupled with sentimentality. The statement is a modest one in that the narrator is willing to shift his opinions, even mid-sentence. There is a measure of sentimentality in that the narrator seems to want to think of his child’s life, and therefore his future memories, to be closely linked to his own.
The author finishes this short section with a callback to the opening scene, where the narrator sets up a game of pool, calls for Grampie, and wishes he would join. In this case, the narrator’s son sets up a city of Hot Wheels, which we can imagine as his equivalent to the basement and pool table at Grampie’s house, and calls to his dad. The dad joins, and relives the sentimental memory of playing with his Grampie long ago.
The final section finds the narrator accompanying his child to school. Charlie asks him whether he can “walk you back” so to spend a few extra minutes together. This is Charlie exhibiting the same desires his father had exhibited in 1980, when he was of similar age.
The narrator returns home and, parallel to lunch with Grampie, opens a can of spaghetti and lets it simmer. As it simmers, he looks out the window at a hedge that needs trimming, again recalling a detail of Grampie. This ends with a warning, again, underscoring the essentially dark nature of this essay: “No matter what you know or where you’ve been, if you don’t believe the past repeats itself, you’re dead wrong. And that’ll haunt you.” Here the narrator again reveals a kind of modesty. He is aware of his different location and travels, and as a consequence, the different things he knew from his Grampie. Still, he recognises this is no guarantee that his past will not repeat with his child. Will his child remember the times his father didn’t play as much as the times he did, much as the narrator feels with respect to Grampie? We’re left to imagine that awareness of this is not sufficient to break the cycle. What will break the cycle remains unstated, and to answer here would be pure conjecture.
Given the political nature of, especially, section two, we should conclude that the author wants to generalise this individual experience in order to comment on “making America great again.” We should think of this as an indictment of sentimental memory, and an encouragement to recall a more realistic, perhaps rawer, version of ourselves and our pasts. Given the raw version of Grampie we get here, complete with blatant prejudice and a general decline in demeanor and economic position, the author warns us to notice these same features of ourselves, even if we do not believe ourselves susceptible to such prejudice and decline. Perhaps our political choices are reflective of our failures to view ourselves realistically.
Interestingly, perhaps puzzlingly, all of this seems inspired by a can of spaghetti. Indeed, the featured picture of the essay is a skillet of simmering, cheap spaghetti. Given the strong imagery elsewhere in the essay, we should treat this as a deliberate attempt to make a final statement. In it, I find this: this is an ordinary essay about ordinary people who do ordinary things. It is not the sort of essay one would read in a literary non-fiction journal, as nothing distinguishes the subject matter in any sensational way. The voice here is less American than in other of the author’s works, suggesting that he might be shifting his style to match his new life down under.
From Alan Duff’s “Once Were Warriors” to Janet Frame’s “Owls Do Cry,” New Zealand’s literature tends to celebrate the mundane in the rawest of forms, yet refuses to elevate any characters or events above others. There is a strong sense of being “in this together,” we might say. “March 15” seems written in this spirit, with repeated modest turns, and with a subject matter utterly un-distinguished. Yet within this structure, the author crafts a warning, perhaps overly subtle, perhaps inviting criticism of this sort, if only to make sense of its message, and if only to warn that sometimes it’s history’s hauntings that repeat.