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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Letter to Benjamin - Buechner

Dear Benjamin,

When you were born this summer in Burlington, Vermont, your father decided to ask a few of us, rather than to give you something on the order of a silver rattle or teething ring, to write you a letter that you are to open on your twenty-first birthday, August 25, 2015, which happens to fall on a Tuesday. It sounded like a good idea when he suggested it, and it sounds like a good idea still, but you can't imagine how I've struggled over it. I am your grandfather, after all. I should have some extra special things to say, and so I like to think I have, but the problem is how to decide which ones to put in and which ones to leave out, where to start and where to stop. My vision of your birthday itself keeps getting in the way.

As I see it, your parents have taken a private room in a good restaurant somewhere. Everybody is wearing evening clothes. Dinner has been eaten. Toasts have been proposed over dessert and coffee. The historic letters have been brought out in a cardboard box. You decide it might be entertaining to read a few of them out loud. You happen to pick out mine. What words of wisdom will it contain? What grandfatherly advice about the future? What revelations about the ancestral past? The prospect paralyzes me. If I am lucky enough to be there in the flesh, age eighty-nine, I will twitch with apprehension as you open the envelope. If I am there as a ghost, I will be tempted to drift out of the open window like a wisp of cigar smoke. How much less painful to give you a silver rattle. But a promise is a promise. I will do the best I can. I will forget about trying to be wise and grandfatherly. I will simply tell you a few of the things that seem important to me as I start writing this on the morning of Saturday, the 21st of October, 1994.

So I will start out once again with Dear Benjamin because it contains two important truths. The first is that you are indeed Benjamin, and the second is that to me you are indeed dear even though I hardly know you yet because at this point, when you are barely two months old, there really isn't much of you to know. You are dear because a little of my blood is in your veins, and therefore, as the old song goes, even when my song is over and done with, some echo at least of the melody will linger on in you. And you are dear because so many of the people I have loved in my life are somehow or other present in the genetic bouillabaisse of who you are even though you will know about many of them, if you know about them at all, only as names or old photographs in an album. Dear Benjamin.

When I look at those photographs myself—the earliest go back as far as my great-great- (your great-great-great-great-!) grandparents, who were born in the opening years of the nineteenth century some two hundred years ago as I write—I wonder who on earth they were. I've picked up a scrap or two about a few of them.

My great-great-grandfather Isaac Golay on my mother's side, for instance. The picture I have shows him sitting in a chair with his left arm resting awkwardly on a table covered with a patterned shawl. He is wearing a frock coat that looks at least two sizes too big for him and has sleeves that come down over his knuckles. He is bald on top and seems to have brushed some of the side hair over his forehead a little to make him appear less so. He has impressive pouches under his eyes and is gazing out not quite directly at the camera with his brow slightly contracted and his lips drawn tight as though the photographer has just told him that if he so much as breathes for the next five minutes, the exposure will be completely ruined. He was a French Swiss who ran a jewelry business on the ground floor of his house in Geneva assisted by his wife, whose picture in a voluminous dress with a little bonnet tied under her chin is next to his in the album.

Her name was Rose Besancon Golay, she was of Huguenot descent, and the story is that she was more highly born than her husband and never let him forget it. Her photograph lends support to the theory. It shows her with clenched jaws looking at the camera out of the corner of her eyes with an expression of darkest suspicion. In response, perhaps, to the photographer's suggestion, she is trying to crank up a smile but has succeeded only in looking as mad as a wet French hen of Huguenot descent. Her chair is much grander than her husband's, as befits her station, and her left arm, like his, is resting on a table, except that on this one there are also two books, a very large one with another, much smaller, on top of it. You get the impression that if the photographer had been bold enough with that terrible glance upon h i m to suggest that she give her smile another try, she would have winged them both at him and in all likelihood would have scored a couple of bull's-eyes. But who knows what she and old Isaac were really like and what was going on inside them at the moment when the shutter snapped? All I can tell you is what little I picked up as the one member of my generation who was ever especially interested in such matters. And if this were a book instead of a birthday letter, who knows how long I would rattle on about them.

I would tell you, I'm sure, about my two grandmothers - about Naya, who spoke in shimmering paragraphs and was the one safe haven of my storm-tossed childhood, and about Grandma Buechner, who called a spade a spade and survived a series of family tragedies with a strength that I'm sure helped me survive them too although at the time I barely suspected it. I might tell you too about my great-great-grandfather Achazius Stehlin on my father's side, born in 1808, who gave up the idea of entering the priesthood for the law and became vice president of the short lived Republic of Baden after the revolution of 1848, which, when it failed, led to his being condemned to death and sent to prison which he managed to escape for France and subsequently Brooklyn, New York, where upstairs in the saloon he ran (which his granddaughter, who was my grandmother, carefully explained was not a saloon in the vulgar sense but more of a club) he started what may have been the first German theater in America. And I would probably say a word or two about my great-grandmother Elizabeth Eimbke Buechner, who, when her dying husband complained about the noise she was making in his room with the carpet sweeper, is reported to have made a reply that has been enshrined in family legend. "Heute ist Dienstag" is what she said, which means "Today is Tuesday," because Tuesday was her day for sweeping the carpet no matter what. Today happens to be Tuesday too. The sun is bright, and the sky is blue. Most of the autumn leaves have fallen, and the ones that are left on the trees are mostly rust-colored with here and there a feathering of lemon yellow. It is on the cool side, but our two dachshunds—Otto the Irrepressible and his uncle, Klaus the Long-suffering—seem perfectly comfortable dozing in the sun where the leaves lie thick and unraked. Last week as I drove along the unpaved West Pawlet road with the sun shining through them, they were as nearly golden as anything can be without being gold. They glistened and dazzled like the walls and vaulted ceiling of some great Arc de Triomphe so that I had no choice but to stop thinking about whatever I was thinking about and to think about them instead, less to think about them than just to lose myself in them. Did Achazius Stehlin, hot-footing it out of France one jump ahead of the posse, ever see leaves like that? Did Rose Besancon Golay ever catch a glimpse of them through the jewelry shop's grilled window, or did great-grandfather August Buechner at least hear them rustling maybe in between sweeps of the carpet sweeper? I like to believe so, but how can I ever know? I am appalled by how little I know even about my own grandfathers.

My grandfather Buechner died when I was ten, only a few days after the death of his oldest son, my father. He was a dapper old gentleman who loved fine clothes, fine food, good wine, and when his children were little loved taking them on walks through Central Park and showing them around museums. When his silk-importing business went under in 1929, he was more or less wiped out, and for the rest of his life the family had to live on his wife's inheritance, which wasn't easy for him and probably explains why in almost every memory I have of him he is holding a drink in his hand and not saying much. He and my grandmother lived for years in an apartment at 940 Park Avenue in New York, and once when I was spending the night there as a little boy, I found myself sleeping in a bed that for some reason had been made up without sheets, an event so unprecedented and confusing that, not knowing what else to do, I started to cry. My grandfather must have heard me as he passed by in the hall because all of a sudden there he was at my bedside in the dark asking me what the trouble was, and when I told him about the sheets, he said that once when he was about my age he had had to spend a night in a tree, where of course he had no sheets either. Since he had survived that experience no worse for wear, he said, he was sure that I would survive too. It gave me something else to think about anyway, and as far as I can remember that brief exchange was the nearest thing to a close encounter the two of us ever had. But if only I had gone further with it. If only I had asked him to tell me why he had spent the night in a tree. If only I had asked him to tell me more about himself. But I'm sure such questions never so much as crossed my mind at that age, and even if they had, I would never have dared ask them.

I was twenty-one years old, your age, when my grandfather Kuhn died—he was eighty-one—but although I saw a lot of him over the years, I never got to know h i m very well either. He was a shy, private sort of man, bald as an egg with liver spots on his shiny scalp, and a scruffy gray mustache, and a little pink papilloma round as a jellybean over one eyebrow. He not only loved my grandmother, Naya, but enormously admired her wit and eloquence and always let her do most of the talking. I remember him sitting in the living room listening to the news of World War II on the radio with his straw hat on. He used to tell how when he was a young man he had eaten some black raspberries once in Somerset, Kentucky. He said they had made him so sick that he had never eaten black raspberries again, and for the rest of his life if he ever saw anybody else eating anything that struck him as questionable, he had only to intone Somerset, Kentucky, a couple of times in a baleful voice, and everybody knew exactly what he meant. I remember he hated to see my mother and her sister, Ruth, wearing jewelry for some reason, and when they were in a certain mood, they would tease him about it and to show their power over him would make him kiss their earrings. When my mother eloped with my father in 1922, he was so furious that he refused to see her for three or four years and had all the pictures of her put away and wouldn't allow anyone to mention her in his presence. He eventually relented, of course, and he and my father became friends although I can't remember ever seeing the two of them together or hearing him speak my father's name. Except once.

I must have been about fifteen or so and we were sitting on a screened porch in Tryon, North Carolina, when out of the blue he addressed me not as Buzzfuzz, which was what he had always called me before for some long forgotten reason, and not as Freddy, which was what just about everybody else called me, but as Fred, which was not so much my name as it had been my father's. The moment lasted no time at all, but I remember feeling that by using that name he was coming as close as he ever did to telling me that he was sorry—sorry that my father had died so young and sorry also for me. If only I had been able to press him further, but of course I wasn't and didn't, and since no such moment ever occurred between us again, he remained almost as shadowy a figure as my grandfather Buechner was.

But even if things had turned out otherwise, I wonder if it would have made any great difference. Even if my grandfathers had been less shadowy and I had been less timid, I wonder if I would ever have been able to learn from them what I would give so much to know now about who they were, both for its own sake and also for the sake of learning something more about who I am myself. Even if I were to stretch this letter out, God forbid, to a thousand pages, would I ever be able to convey my full story to you? I suspect the answer is no. I suspect that our stories in their fullness will always be hidden from each other and that all those whiskered old men and bonneted old women looking out at us from their photographs in the family album will always remain mysteries to us even if, like me, they happen to have written their memoirs. And yet I believe that all is not lost. Maybe we can never know each other's stories i n their fullness, but I believe we can know them in their depth for the reason that in their depth we all have the same story.

Whether we're rich or poor, male or female, a nineteenth-century Swiss jeweler like Isaac Golay in his oversized frock coat, or a twentieth-century American clergyman like me with a penchant for writing books, or a young squirt celebrating his twenty-first birthday in the twenty-first century like you, our stories are all stories of searching. We search for a good self to be and for good work to do. We search to become human in a world that tempts us always to be less than human or looks to us to be more. We search to love and to be loved. And in a world where it is often hard to believe in much of anything, we search to believe in something holy and beautiful and life-transcending that will give meaning and purpose to the lives we live.

I sense a growing restlessness among the birthday guests. One of them keeps rolling up and unrolling a napkin. Another is glancing around the table wondering if it would be seemly to ask the waiter for an after-dinner drink. So enough of all this. Let's have another drink all around, this time on me, and as I raise my glass—whether I'm there in the flesh to do it or only as a benevolent ghost—my birthday wish is that after wandering through many a street for many a long year to come, you may find your way at last to the fountain in the square.

With love from your grandfather.

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