Most of the stories I know of my grandfather and my great-grandfather are largely exaggerated. They’re tales handed down from my father and his siblings. I was told my great-grandfather was the only man in Alton, Illinois who drove a convertible with reclining front seats, and his friend Robert Wadlow, the tallest man to have ever lived, would occasionally borrow my grandfather’s car to cruise for chicks.
I am a snoop, always finding Christmas presents well in advance of the holiday. One year, while sneaking around in my dad’s closet, I uncovered a prayer book that had once belonged to my grandfather. I know this, because, in the front of the book, in the most precise penmanship, on the line beneath “Property of” was written “Harlan Charles Wastler.”
When I was caught by my father, and let it be known I was always caught while snooping (at least that’s what I’ll tell the authorities), he told me — I swear to this day — that my grandfather had such nice penmanship that he was often asked to handwrite the entire Bible. Until as recently as a couple years ago, I still believed this to be fact. I figured he would just do it for fun after work while listening to the Cardinals game on the radio, and I imagined a large shelf above his head with beautiful leather-bound journals filled with blank pages, awaiting his quill.
My grandfather died when my dad was seventeen. It left my father, who was all set to leave for college, to stay behind and help to take care of his younger brothers, twins Mark and Matt. My mother too lost her mother at a very young age and was relied upon to care for younger siblings. I think it’s part of what’s shaped my appreciation for what my parents did and what all parents do.
My brother Ben and I are lucky to have the parents we do. They had something of a trial period prior to raising us, and we got their best effort. In New York, while studying acting, I had an instructor who encouraged us to go back and research our family histories. “You’ll have a better idea of where you’re going if you know where you come from.” It was at this time I began recording my family’s history, and since then, I’ve had a fascination with origin stories of all kinds.
And so it is, as today is Father’s Day, and my dad is celebrating his last before becoming a grandfather, I am able to learn a bit more about the man who shaped the one I’ve idolized for my thirty-two years in his care. Thank you, dad, for taking time to share some things your father taught you.