Keith J. Powell
Barack Obama was about to be elected president and my grandfather was about to die. As summer became fall, both felt increasingly inevitable. It was just a matter of time.
Obama’s candidacy seemed the perfect antidote to the political poison of the last few years, his historic campaign a lifeboat I could swim towards at a time when I felt personally and professionally adrift. During those final hot months, I knocked on doors, I donated, I blogged. I lobbied my grandparents. My mom warned me it was pointless. I told her, Yes, we can.
My grandfather was a bow-tied Midwestern buddha in dark-rimmed glasses. A small-town doctor in the rust belt in the years before the area rusted over, when he spoke, people listened, leaned in, and nodded. Even towards the end, he loomed like a stone cathedral—albeit one in collapse. Frail, nearly blind, but still a formidable catholic authority in whose presence even skeptics genuflected.
We had little in common, and a chasm separated our temperaments, my tempestuous melancholy contrasting sharply with his measured tranquility. One of sixteen grandchildren, I worried he viewed me as the frayed thread in his line. In fact, I have just three memories of time spent alone with him.
Memory 1: We are walking hand in hand in their backyard towards a swing set. I’m very young. He smells like Old Spice and is singing a song.
Poor Rosie O’Grady,
she was a lady by birth.
She got tired of living and
decided to leave the earth.
She swallowed a tapeline
but dying by inches was hard.
So, she went out to the garden and
lay down, and died by the yard.
When I saw Doris Kerns Goodwin promoting Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, and heard murmurs of how candidate Obama planned to use it as a blueprint for his administration, I conceived an absurd Rube Goldberg-like scheme. My grandma had long harbored a fascination with Mary Todd Lincoln, collecting countless biographies and dolling out bits of trivia like hard candy to the grandkids. Preying upon this affinity, I’d sway her using Team of Rivals. She’d convince my grandfather. Their votes would trigger a cascade of similar Republican defections tipping Ohio blue, culminating in Obama’s inauguration. Ohio was the swing state, after all.
Memory 2: The morning of my sister’s high school graduation, my grandma asks me to take my grandfather to lunch while she helps my mom prepare for the party. Over grilled cheeses and soup at Frisch's Big Boy, he tells me about his college roommate — a friend who was drafted in World War II and never came home.
Two weeks before election day, I got the call that he’d died. Family was gathering, and I was to help write his obituary. On my drive up, I stopped at bookstore after bookstore, hunting for a copy of Team of Rivals for my grandma. It was sold out everywhere, and it was inconceivable that I would walk into their house — her house now — without it, my coiled grief manifesting in a need to see my ridiculous plot through. After finally locating a single copy in Columbus, it took me three more highway exits to decide I needed one for myself too. After all, I wasn’t assigning a book report. This was a journey I was asking her to take with me. It was three more stops before I found another copy of the sprawling tome.
A week after his funeral, my mom mentioned to my grandma that she planned to vote for Obama.
Tut-tutting, my grandma warned her, “Your father will be spinning in his grave.”
It was roughly this time that I googled “Poor Rosie O’Grady,” the strange little song he sang to me when I was young. I never conclusively uncovered its origins, only that most places record it as “Sweet Rosie O’Grady.” Sweet, not poor.
Memory 3: We’re alone in his hospital room. He looks impatient for this all to be over with, embarrassed by the fuss. I want to ask if he has any final wisdom to share but can’t think of a way to do so that doesn’t sound melodramatic. Before leaving, I change “Mr.” to “Dr.” on the whiteboard near his TV. It’s the least I can do.
Two years into President Obama’s disappointing, timid first term, I discover two facts about my grandfather.
Fact 1: He wrote agonizing poetry about depression. One repeats “I want to die” over and over in an increasingly chaotic scrawl that could easily be mistaken for a suicide note.
Fact 2: He never told anyone else in the family the story about his roommate killed in the war.
These twin revelations inspire me, at last, to crack my unopened copy of Team of Rivals. During my childhood, my grandma’s passion for Mrs. Lincoln seemed inscrutable. Now, reading the voluminous work, it’s clear that she saw herself in the sixteenth president’s wife, a complicated woman married to a revered man struggling against his own darkness.
I cradle these discoveries for what they are — an unexpected but precious inheritance.