When my grandfather died in 2011, my mom printed out a copy of his unfinished autobiography and it sat next to our printer for months. I was intrigued by it, but I was too scared to read it because I thought it would make me sad. I mustered the courage to read the first page and the last page and told myself I would come back to fill in the rest when I was ready.
I then proceeded to forget it existed for seven years. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready; perhaps I really forgot about it.
It did make me sad, when I finally read the parts I skipped as a kid. It made me sad that it ended so abruptly, and that it had to end at all. It made me sad to realize all over again that I will never get to have a conversation with him as an adult. It made me sad to connect so deeply for the first time with someone who is already gone.
It also filled me with immense joy and pride and awe and wonder and an overwhelming sense of his gentle legacy and presence and love. I laughed at his jokes, I gasped at his insights, and I leaned into his warmth. I grieved, I discovered, I grew.
Below is a translation of the 29-page document he wrote sometime around 1999 into two maps: the first details his childhood growing up in Newark, New Jersey; the second, his time in the Navy, his life after the War, and his experience raising a family in the 1950s and early 1960s. Accompanying his words are sketches he drew dating back to his teens, newspaper clippings he meticulously organized in scrapbooks, and family photos he either took or sentimentally preserved in boxes and books.
My favorite memory of my grandfather is a brief exchange we had one summer morning when I was seven years old. I spent an excessive amount of time spreading cream cheese onto every last crumb of the bagel on my plate on the dining room table at my grandparents’ house in Spotswood, New Jersey. My grandfather watched me from over the top of his newspaper. Finally, I finished. He folded the newspaper, set it down in front of him, looked at my bagel, then at me, and said, “You are a very particular child.” I had no idea what he meant. I laughed. He smiled, nodded at me to begin eating, and then returned to his newspaper.
This is my grandfather’s story.