I got an A on it. It blew my instructor away.
Sorry if you've already read it on my online portfolio or elsewhere.
"Searching for Spirits"
About a month ago I saw the John Ford/John Wayne film The Searchers for the first time, and, oddly enough, it was for a class. Dr. Blum, my sociology professor, told us that a visiting professor was going to be discussing the film one night and there would be a screening of it the night before. Since the guest speaker had been invited by Dr. Blum, he offered to give us extra credit if we attended either the lecture or the screening. Because the social sciences lie outside my realm of expertise, I was eager to make up for some lost points. Although the opportunity for extra credit was what originally captured my interest, my motives for attending the showing changed when I learned what the film was, and the screening suddenly became an opportunity for something much more personal.
My paternal grandfather was a film buff, but westerns were his true love. He had a deep affection for the days of the Old West, and he would have rather lived in the 19th century than in the 20th. He had and made period style rifles and participated in Old West reenactments. He was an incredible artist and craftsman as well, and often made gifts for all of us grandchildren. He could make anything, but among his finest creations were his old fashioned rocking horses. He began making rocking horses for his grandchildren before I was born, so when it came time for me to get this special gift, he made me a special horse that was much smaller than the others. In order for me to be able to ride it by the time I was a toddler, he had to design a new pattern for the horse, because he couldn’t simply shrink the preexisting pattern. I ended up receiving two rocking horses, one of which was full size, a desk, and a toy box. He named each of the horses, dated them, and branded them as property of his fictitious Oleo Acres which was “one of the cheaper spreads”. He also dated and left notes on the back of the toy box and on the bottom of my desk, including “may you think of me in the years to come”.
He died when I was eight. He had had a long history of heart issues, including multiple heart attacks and surgeries, but his death was still sudden. My grandmother, his wife, had just recently been released from an extended hospital stay. At the time, we were not sure what had happened, but, in the years since, we have determined that she had suffered a stroke. It took months of speech and physical therapy to get her back to “normal”, and that does not include the amount of time and work that went into recovering her memory. And once she had achieved that state of normalcy, my grandfather was suddenly gone.
He was the first grandparent I had lost, and since I lost him at such an early age, I feel like something is missing. It is as though I don’t know him, especially when compared to the amount of time I got to have with my maternal grandparents. I seem to have this yearning to connect with him though he is gone, and he is not the only one I have tried to reach.
Years before I was born, and before my parents got married, my uncle, once again on my father’s side, was killed in a car accident. My father was in high school and my uncle was in his twenties. It was a traumatic experience, one that I know affects my dad to this day. Unfortunately, my uncle despised having his picture taken, and as a result there are few photos of him. In some ways it is almost as though he never existed. My dad still talks about him from time to time, but it is not as though I have a mental image with which I can associate him. In my mind, he is a figure with a slender frame, but not much else. There is no face to attach to the frame and no voice to give it life. With my uncle I never had that connection.
My uncle’s death obviously had a tremendous impact on my family, my brother is named after him, but I never knew him. And as I yearn to know my grandfather, I yearn just as much to know someone who left this world long before I entered it. I have foggy memories of my grandfather, but in order to know my uncle I have to rely on the foggy memories of other people.
It seems I have always wanted to have this connection. As strange and unsettling as it may sound, I actually remember sitting in front of his headstone when I was five years old and reading to him. I am not sure what inspired me to do it, but I was already trying to make that connection. In the years since I have tried to make that connection in other ways. My uncle loved Janis Joplin and George Carlin: both are in my C.D. collection. My grandfather loved the Beatles and M*A*S*H and both are close to my heart. He fought in the Vietnam War, and I have always been interested in the 1960s, so I decided to take the seminar that covered the war. And because my grandfather loved westerns and John Wayne, I was eager to attend the college’s showing of The Searchers. By watching it, I’m sharing something with my grandfather, doing something he enjoyed, and, as a result, I feel closer to him. Even if that feeling only lasts the duration of the movie, it is there. These experiences may be occurring years apart, but that connection is real and nearly tangible.
As I seek out these connections, I am gradually adding pieces to a puzzle that I know I will never be able to finish, because some pieces are gone forever. I don’t let it discourage me, though. The Searchers was an opportunity to acquire another puzzle piece. I invited my dad to come along, as he had never seen it before either. We sat in the back of Phillips Auditorium, certain that we were about to see something special. Some technical difficulties threatened to ruin the night early on, but I saw the film and fell under its spell. And from the opening frame, when Martha Edwards opens her front door to reveal the barren expanse of desert, I felt myself involuntarily shiver with goose bumps.