In the fields of central Indiana, at the intersection of an old gravel road and the highway that divides the county down the middle, stands Beech Grove School, the old brick one-room schoolhouse my grandfather attended as a boy. Inside, a detective kneels in front of a busted safe, carefully brushing on a thin layer of fingerprint dust in the hope that he might be able to piece together what exactly happened there. He shakes his head as he looks around the room. “I sure am sorry,” he tells us. “Someone really made a mess of your place, didn’t they?” He doesn’t know the half of it.
I was four when dad moved our family to Tipton, a small town built by farming and industry. Where the railways and county roads converged, speculators built factories, stockyards, and grain cribs—attracting people who understood that making a living there would not happen overnight. Building a life in such a place took years and it required everything a family had to give, so people put down roots. They birthed the coming generations in their living rooms and buried their dead in the cemeteries they carved out from among the fields they farmed. Families with names like Ripberger, Tragesser, Tebbe, and Schmidt had been around so long that a boy growing up there imagined those last names were as common to the world as Jones or Smith.
My grandfather on my father’s side sold us an acre right next to his house, square in the middle of his property. Living next to him meant we lived with him because he spent as much time as he could outdoors, gardening and caring for his land, and that meant he was always around.
He included my brother and me in his work. He was the first person to pay us for our labor. I remember as vividly as anything the day my brother, who had been outside, ran up to our living room window and slapped a five-dollar bill against the glass, looking shocked and overjoyed as though he had fallen into unexpected riches. I remember thinking he looked older. Neither of us ever had that kind of money, except when our grandparents from New England would send us a little something in our birthday cards.
“Where did you get that,” I asked.
“Grandpa told me to pick up sticks in the yard beside the barn so he could mow. He gave it to me when I finished.” he said.
This new wrinkle of being paid so handsomely for such simple work unlocked a world of possibility in our minds. I put on my shoes and ran over to see if there was anything I could do for my grandfather. He looked as though he half expected my visit and I ended that day with five dollars of my own. We were kings that day, my brother and I.
I loved my grandfather for including us when we were boys, and I loved him for the way he was committed to making us into men. When we worked with him in his garden, he made sure we did things just the way he wanted. He also made us understand that this was not open for debate. He believed there were jobs for men and jobs for boys. When we first started working with him—when we were “all boy, no man”—he would only take us one at a time because, as he used to say, “One boy’s a boy, two boys is half a boy, three boys is no boy at all.”
In time, as we proved ourselves, he began to include us in the work of men. Few things made our hearts soar more than when Grandpa put one of his tools in our hands and let us work beside him, and few things brought us a deeper sense of satisfaction than when he paid us after the work was finished. Boys don’t get paid. Men get paid.
But the truth was we were boys, and my grandfather’s land was a little boy’s dream. Buck Creek cut right through the fields and woods I had memorized so well. The creek was alive with crawdads, catfish, and turtles. And though I had never seen one, I had heard Buck Creek was also home to its share of cottonmouth water moccasins. People said that one strike could kill a boy. Dead. The serpents hid in the rushes, we imagined, coiled with aggression, venom sealed behind their hollow fangs, eager for release. The danger drew us to the banks and the closer we got to where we imagined they were hiding, the more we felt like men.
A grass-covered tractor lane led from the northern edge of my grandfather’s property into a stand of trees we referred to simply as “the woods.” At the far end of the woods, an old shed with a dirt floor and a tin roof rested against an old red oak. The shed and tree looked like a couple of old friends holding each other up. Time had woven the branches, eaves, and rafters together until the two had become inseparable. That shed was an excellent bunker for a boy with a cap gun to hole up in and blast his way through the Bolivian soldiers who had finally gotten the drop on old Butch and Sundance. I rescued many maidens in those woods, and I got the drop on a lot of bad guys too.
At the other end of the tractor lane, across the yard from Grandpa’s house, stood a one hundred-year-old barn with a loft full of hay bales, rusty tools, and feral cats. Time and neglect had begun to pull at its walls and weaken its floors. Between the possibility of getting lockjaw from a rusty nail or the floorboards giving way underfoot, that old barn was even more dangerous than the cottonmouths. Like a snake, it could poison our blood, but it could also break our bones.
My brother and I were forbidden to go into that barn, which made it one of our favorite places in the world. We’d sneak in through a side door, out of the line of sight of Grandpa’s living room window, climb up the old plank ladder into the loft and stack the hay bales like giant blocks to create a maze of secret rooms and tunnels.
Occasionally my grandfather would suspect I was in there. How, I don’t know. But sometimes he would slide open that heavy door, step into the center aisle, and study the stalls, tack room, and loft, listening. He’d call out, “Anyone here?”
I’d watch from the rafters, still as a statue.
“Hello?” he said again.
His mind held a collection of images of the ways things were supposed to look—the proper latching of a door, the glistening of a full water trough, the motes of dust hanging like stars between him and clean lines of the hayloft. I knew the combination of his failing eyesight and the dust between us would hide me so long as I didn’t move. His eyes would trust the stillness and his memory would fill in the details of what he couldn’t see. There we’d be, me in the place of my trespass, him seeing but not perceiving, my present sins hidden from him as surely as those of his past were locked away from me.
“Anyone here, I say?”
My grandfather slid the old door closed and fastened the latch, locking me inside my private world. Though I was too young to understand, I was doing something then that I have done with every relationship I’ve known since. I was trying to manage what my grandfather could see of me. I wanted him to see the helpful boy who walked beside his mower picking up black walnuts to protect the blade, but not the boy who stole the half empty pouches of chewing tobacco off his kitchen counter when he wasn’t home. I wanted him to see me standing at his back door, hoping to tag along when he went to the diner for lunch, but not the boy hiding in plain sight behind the ladder he was now too old to climb.
I had to have been one of the more familiar figures in my grandfather’s world. I was his grandson and his next-door neighbor. We saw each other every day. I worked at his side. But his old eyes had grown too dim to convince him that the object behind the ladder up in the haymow was me, his own flesh and blood. I was Jacob hidden in the texture and scent of Esau, fooling the old man who, though he clearly remained skeptical, had no choice but to accept that my stillness and silence meant I wasn’t there.
What we show of ourselves to others is what they will come to know of us, of who we are. Hiding there in plain sight, so familiar and yet so unrecognizable, felt like a transgression. It wasn’t just that I shouldn’t have hidden from my grandfather; there shouldn’t have existed in me the instinct to do so in the first place. But there it was. This was the first time I remember feeling guilt, and the feeling came with a companion as old as guilt itself—the impulse to hide. I was only a child. What had I to hide?
The landscape of my boyhood was marked out in my memory by that barn, a creek, the woods, and the old schoolhouse standing alone at the end of our dirt road. My home was a collection of details, relief, history, and memories all tied together into a countryI had come to know by heart.I can close my eyes and see it. I imagine this is how it is for anyone who spent his younger years in one place. I came to know my home not as a single place, but as a network of places connected to each other.
But now when I return to that place, it is not as I remember. Dirt roads have been paved, old buildings have been knocked down, and new ones have been built in their places. Entire neighborhoods have cropped up where only corn once grew.
But the land I had known so well as a boy, a place so new to me and undiscovered, was also the land of my grandfather’s old age and it had changed quite a bit since the days of his youth. The schoolhouse he attended, Beech Grove School, took its name because it was built in front of an orchard of beech trees—a landmark dotting the flat, Indiana horizon. People could see it from miles away. Common sense had chosen the school’s name before a single brick was laid, just as it had chosen names for Cave Spring Road or Brick Church Lane.
The reasons behind names like these, when they are first given, are obvious. They are part of the observable world. But over time, things change—the brick church get destroyed in a fire, the cave spring dries up, the beech trees die off, and so do the generation who named them. There was a time when that stand of trees sheltered the school from the prairie winds, but I have no memory of it. When my grandfather went there, the school was cooled in the afternoon sun under the shade of those trees. Perhaps one or two of them were good climbing trees, giving the children a natural playground. Maybe some of them had young lover’s initials carved into the bark, with a heart and an arrow surrounding the letters. I don’t know. Those trees were not part of the landscape I knew. But for one, they were all gone, and the one that did remain was, itself, mostly dead.
My grandfather was an elegant man. Whether he was in the garden in his straw hat, green work pants and white button-down shirt or headed off to work at the Chrysler dealership in his suit and cuff links, smelling of pomade and Old Spice, he was always put together, modest, and neat as a pin.
He belonged to a generation that cared about the appearance of things—about order and design—so every year or two he would hand my parents a few twenty-dollar bills, neatly folded together, and tell them, “A boy needs a suit.”
This was a liturgical act, a ritual with a purpose. My grandfather gave my parents this money so that we would have something to wear to his funeral, when that day came. He was not a sickly man, but he was a pragmatist. He knew his day would come, and he knew with every passing hour that it was inching closer. Since he lived by the sweat of his brow, he had no intention of wasting his twilight years in a hospital bed. He figured one summer day he would stand up after weeding a row of beans, his heart would give out, and that would be that.
“A boy needs a suit,” he said. “You just never know.”
Our mother would take my brother and me to the local department store where we would try on various combinations of slacks, sport coats, and clip-on ties until we each had something both we and our mother could live with. I don’t remember when the phrase took hold, but everyone in our family came to know these outfits as our “funeral clothes.” We understood these were ceremonial garments—vestments we’d put on when the time came for us boys to gain our earliest lessons in mortality and grief. Grandpa imagined there would come a day when our parents would have to tell us that he had died, and though we wouldn’t understand all that meant, we would at least know what to do next. We’d put on our funeral clothes.
Besides this primary purpose, there was another ceremony we observed in these garments—this on the very day we brought them home. When we got back from the store, my brother and I would put them on and pose for a Polaroid in the yard with our dog Zombie, whom my grandfather loved as dearly as he had ever loved anything. Then, still dressed up, Zombie at our side, we would take the picture to over to grandpa’s house. He would look us up and down for a minute and then study the picture in silence as we waited. In that tiny image he could see us as we would be, standing beside his casket. It seemed to please him to know we were at least in some way outfitted to let him take his leave from us, and maybe to help him one last time. Perhaps he imagined himself lying in repose as a line of friends and family filed past to get one last look at him while my brother and I stood as a people prepared, shaking the mourners hands and offering words of comfort. Or maybe he just wanted us to look nice when we buried our own faces into our parents’ sides, weeping our own tears over this confusing introduction to death.
After looking at the picture for a while, he’d say, “Those are fine boys. Fine boys,” It was a kind of benediction. With that blessing, we hurried home to get out of those clothes, unclipping our ties as we ran.
A year or two would pass and we’d do it all over again.
In its early years, the Beech Grove School was the only place for miles where the migrant workers and farmers could send their children for a proper education. Eventually industry took hold in the area and the little town got organized. They built a courthouse, a post office, a hospital, a bank, and a new school closer to the center of things. The old schoolhouse stayed empty until a handful of faithful families converted it into a little church, which struggled along but somehow managed to survive under one name or another all the way up until the late 1980s. When the church at last closed its doors, the schoolhouse stood vacant until my father leased it as an office for his computer business.
Sometime around midnight on Christmas Day of 1994, while I was home from college, shadowy figures kicked in the front door of the old schoolhouse and looted my father’s new office. The next morning, a neighbor phoned to ask my dad if he knew the schoolhouse door was standing wide open. Dad called the police and a detective met us there.
The detective studied the sanctuary and shook his head. The place looked like a scene from a movie, like a room torn apart by secret operatives searching for clandestine files. Loose paper, upended furniture, cables, tools, and old machine parts lay scattered across the room. The door to the safe lay on the floor beside the strongbox, bent and empty.
The detective said, “Why do people do these things? I sure am sorry. Someone really made a mess of your place, didn’t they. And on Christmas too.”
A rush of anxiety came over me. I was keeping a secret. I worried that if the detective were to turn his questions on me, I would fold, guilty as a bandit, because I knew something he did not, something relevant to his investigation, something I did not want to tell him. What he didn’t know was that the papers and upended furniture strewn across the room were actually just as they had been before the burglars arrived. Yes, thieves kicked in the door and cracked the safe, but the mess they walked into was all our own, and we had been working on it for a long time.
My father’s computer business had been dying for several years. It was a tough industry in a tough town, and dad had all but resigned himself to the fact that he couldn’t keep it going much longer. The move from an office in town to the old schoolhouse was a step along the way to dissolving the business he’d spent the better part of two decades building. Now years of cables, machines, parts, and office supplies lay scattered throughout the building with no apparent order to anyone but my father.
After the detective left, dad and I began the slow work of seeing what, if anything, was lost. We were in good spirits, really. It was Christmas, after all. A new year was just around the corner. We talked as we worked. We talked about the years when his business was in the center of town and how I used to walk to his office after school to wait for him to take me home. We talked about when he took the whole family to a Lake Tahoe casino for a conference about operating systems. He played the slots and won a souvenir cup full of quarters, then sent my brother and me to the arcade to kill an afternoon. We talked about the short but story-filled list of past employees. I was on that list. He talked about how much his industry had changed, how much I’d grown and how it was more of a relief than anything to know he was moving on.
I never considered that schoolhouse mine—not in the way I did Grandpa’s barn or Buck Creek. Its windows were frosted white and set too high in the walls to see through from the ground. Until my dad signed his lease, I had never even seen the inside of it. Not once. Growing up I knew the outside of that schoolhouse as well as anyone, but I could no more tell you what was contained within those walls than I could describe the interior vaults of Fort Knox. It wasn’t until the burglars broke open the safe and the detective started his investigation and told us to take an inventory of what had been lost that I ever felt I had any place at all in that building. It had been as unknown to me as it was familiar. And in that sense, as I was about to find out, it was a lot like my grandfather.
Late that afternoon the phone rang. It was a doctor from the nursing home where my grandfather had been living for the past year. Dad listened on the line for a minute, said “Okay,” and then hung up.
He said, “Doctor says we probably ought to get down there.”
I arrived at the hospital about fifteen minutes after my father. I remember that day with vivid clarity. I walked into my grandfather’s room and saw my dad standing on the far side, facing me. Between us, my grandfather lay motionless in his bed. My father was looking at me with tears in his eyes and a slight smile at the corners of his mouth.
My grandfather looked almost unrecognizable—gaunt, ashen, waxy, and so very still.
“He just left us,” my father said. “Not more than five minutes ago. I was here. I held his hand. I told him it was okay to go.”
Tears gathered and clung to my father’s lower eyelids so that when he blinked, they all fell to the floor at the same time. He straightened his father’s hair with his hand.
“He took in a deep breath and let it out real slow, and then he was gone,” he said.
Neither of us said anything for a while after that. I prayed. I sensed the presence of God there with us. My father, though stunned with grief and shock, seemed genuinely thankful for the peaceful, painless way my grandfather had died, and he counted it a holy honor to have been there to tell him it was okay to go.
I remember how still everything became in that room—how the air seemed to take on a sepia tone and how I sensed that the moment we were living was ancient, set for us before the foundation of the world. Three generations of fathers and sons gathered in a room, one now gone and two preparing to sift through the rubble of what remained.
“You’re going to need a suit,” my father said.
The world is a place of order and design.
Long ago, God told his people to make sure they taught their sons and daughters about him. When they tucked their children in for the night, when they walked with them along the road, when they gathered to eat, they were to talk about the Lord and his promises. God said, “Tell your children what I’ve told you. Bind my words to your minds and hearts, and to theirs.” And this is just what they did. They tied Torah-filled tefellin boxes to their foreheads and wrote scripture on the doorposts of their homes and gates, so that in all their comings and goings their minds—young and old alike—would be filled with ancient truth.
God wanted his people to tell their children about him so that they might know him, but he wasn’t speaking of something that only worked in matters of faith. He was telling us how he had designed the world itself to work. What a father gives his son is what that boy will know. It is who he’ll become. It is this way for all of us. Nobody gets out clean. This is part of the order of creation.
What my grandfather had given me was what I knew of him. And the era in which he had given it was my context for knowing; it was the era of my first twenty years and of his last. He had given me so much and I loved him for it—he the priest over countless rites of passage that marked my boyhood, me the acolyte learning how to absorb the wisdom of the aged.
Of course I only knew a fraction of my grandfather’s story. The first fifty years of his life were all but unknown to me, except for a few historical details. But there in that hospital room it was as though someone had kicked in the doors of his private world and my father and I were about to begin sifting through the secret sanctuary of his greatest moments and deepest sins—that place so familiar and so unknown—to account for what we lost that day.
In the weeks that followed, my father began to tell me some of my grandfather’s stories from before I was born. They were layered with broken promises, the sowing of more than his share of wild oats, and hurt. As it turned out, when he was younger he was a hard man to know and an even harder man to love. I had no idea of the messes he left in his wake—messes that shaped my father, messes that are still shaping me, messes even my own children catch a glimpse of every so often.
My father told me stories from his own life too—accounts of where he had been most deeply wounded and of his struggle to connect with his own sons because of how little he had to go on from his father. My grandfather, the man I knew, was not the man my father had known when he was my age. What I didn’t know was how sad parts of my grandfather’s life had been. I only knew him as an old man who had already experienced most of the loss he would face in life. Heartache and time had taken a hard man and made him gentle. That’s the man I knew.
My father didn’t tell me these stories out of anger or spite, but out of grief and hope—hope that they were well on their way to becoming old tales. As he told them, I was struck by a thought I had never considered: my grandfather had a life before I was born—and if that was true, my mother and father must have too, lives that were rich, complex and virtually unknown to me. Another thought stormed in behind that one: if this was true, then all three of them must have had rich, complex lives virtually unknown to me even as I lived with them.
Who was I, after all? I wasn’t the center of their lives. I was important to them, and loved. But neither my grandfather nor my parents sought to make sure I was intimately acquainted with the inner workings of their hearts. How could they convey such a thing? How could I bear it? Sometimes, even when we’re standing right in front of each other, we lack too much information to really see each other. Of course we don’t want it to be this way, but what else can we do?
I see the detective with his investigation kit, surveying the room looking for clues to trace out the narrative of what took place. But all that remains for him are the traces of a story he will never be able to put back together. He tells us it’s pretty rare when they actually recover any stolen property.
Time claims so much.
I remember “Beech Grove School” engraved in the capstone over the entrance in a simple but elegant font. I see my grandfather standing at the steps, books and homework under his arm. I remember what it was like to be thirteen and I imagine my grandfather and the other boys playing and fighting behind the grove of beech trees, settling the questions that boys of that age need to settle. I see huddles of girls whispering and giggling in a private language the boys will never learn. I see the teacher with the most basic tools of her trade—something to write with, something to write on, and something with which to instill fear and keep order.
I see children as children are and have always been—innocent, curious, mischievous, and moldable. They blend together into a single thing, a social order gathered on a proving ground, wondering who they are, where they fit, what they’ll become. They are a class like any other class. I can see my grandfather in his seat amid the other freckled boys and pony-tailed girls working their numbers on their chalkboards.
Three o’clock comes and I see them filter out into the yard. They walk home, some to their mothers’ kisses. Others to a father’s criticism. Some have love poured into them. Others have it driven out. Some don’t have a care in the world. Others carry unimaginable burdens—the creeping advance of a sickness for which there is no cure, the longing to be close to a parent but thwarted by an addiction that stands between them like a demon with a flaming sword—the child still in the garden of hope but the parent somewhere east of Eden.
My grandfather carries in his bag a tin canister of pencils and crayons and a cigar box of hand-bound composition books filled with drawings of dissected frogs and the anatomies of flowers. I can see these items in particular because these are relics I actually found one day while rummaging through some old boxes he kept in one of his outbuildings. I hid them in one of my secret rooms in the hayloft, one near the rafters by the window. I’d return to those brittle, yellowed pages, neatly printed in a child’s hand, often; one thirteen-year-old boy looking over the shoulder of another, sixty years after the fact. The flowers he had drawn had long since withered, but the sketches and words he wrote about them remained as true as ever because this world is a place of order and design. Grass withers and flowers fade, but the word of truth stands forever. In this case, the truth Grandpa’s frogs and flowers were telling me was that he was a boy once, and no matter how familiar he might have been to me, there were entire epochs of his life that I knew nothing about, and never would, except for what those few relics revealed and the few images my mind suggested. And except for what carried over in the messes he left behind.
That school house, Grandpa’s barn, the woods—they’re all different now. I try to tell my children about them, but I know that what they imagine is not what actually was. If we are going to remember, we must fight to remember. As we remember, we will remember people. We will remember them not as they were, but as they were to us. In doing this we will judge their lives according to a limited stack of evidence, unfamiliar with all that was kept locked away from our sight. We must admit that we see through a glass darkly and that much of what there is to know is, like that grove of beech trees, lost. And what we do know, we know only in part. For this, there must be grace.