An Echo Through a Train of Rooms: Father and Son at the End of an Era How the past tells us nothing about the future, except our hope for it.

Illustration by Tim Foley

From nails, mucous membrane,

Lungs, liver, bowels, and spleen

Whose house is made? Mine.

 

—Czeslaw Milosz, from “City Without a Name”

 

 

 

My elder son, who is 18, has worried he is missing out on interesting times. It would have been better if he lived in the 1800s, he said, and signed on as a cabin boy on a man-of-war. He still longs for significance and adventure, for tests of character and strength.

I have long-reminded both my sons to pay attention to current events, so they can tell their children what they lived through. Jack is one of maybe six million children in the United States who were in utero on 9-11 and grew up in a new millennium. His high school ended at home, due to the worst pandemic in a century, and his graduation was virtual.

His first presidents were the odd trio of Bush, Obama, and Trump. This might have something to do with his choice of political science as a major, and he started college last fall just as campuses became dangerous, and the economy became dire (again). He was elected, in his first semester, to his first office—student senate—and could vote for the first time in national elections, which were historically contentious.

We even got to see the Great Conjunction recently, when the two biggest planets in the system appeared to be closer than at any other time since the 1200s.

Election Day 2020 would mark another adventure: his first time traveling alone, since I had suggested we look, together, at whatever happened in a Midwestern radius. He woke before dawn in Baton Rouge, was first in line to vote (but had to wait two more hours after the poll opened), took a Latin test while sitting in the airport, then flew to St. Louis, where his brother, Julian, and I scooped him up.

I had asked several politicians and a well-known wonk if we could attend their watch-parties, if it could be done safely. They deferred or did not answer, which I sensed had more to do with the emotions of the election than with the pandemic. Who wants to be witnessed losing when the stakes are this high? I did get tickets for Trump’s St. Louis Campaign Headquarters party and had word on two protest actions, if the streets erupted.

My sons are everything to me, and I appreciate any remaining chances to share in their understandings. Like many things in American life now, this also is a tug between the conservative (preserving their safety, and our money, time, and effort) and the liberal (being open to new views and experiences).

 

•  •  •

 

Donald Trump’s St. Louis Campaign Headquarters was in a strip mall in Fenton, Missouri, next to a remaining JC Penney. Both boys and I drove down on election night.

Fenton is built among rock outcroppings along the Meramec River, on land that has been inhabited for at least a thousand years. Native American burial mounds, called the Fenton Mound Group, began to be desecrated to make way for the town in the 19th century. The most recent were destroyed in 2001, for a Walmart Supercenter.

At night, in the rain, Fenton looks like any other cluster of lights outside the ring road—gas stations, fast food, a Pottery Barn outlet—except for those bluffs, which are reminiscent of some ancient defensive fortification. It is the sort of place where people must imagine themselves defending a way of life by supporting Donald Trump. When we took the exit, we started seeing pickups flying Trump flags, like medieval standard-bearers. The man in the souped-up Challenger next to us at the light had a license plate that read 45 SIG with a surround that said Don’t tread on me.

A man on his phone outside turned to watch as we walked past, as if we were deep-state agents on reconnaissance. My boys and I had overdressed, most of all by wearing masks, which no one else wore.

Suburbs in St. Louis County like to point out they are not the city of St. Louis.

St. Louis City is 45.3 percent Black, for instance; Fenton is 96.3 percent white. St. Louis City’s median household income is $41,000; Fenton’s is $93,000. St. Louis City went 82 percent for Biden; Fenton went more than 60 percent for Trump, with the numbers rising as you headed south into the Ozark Plateau: 66 percent in Jefferson County, which abuts Fenton; 80.7 percent in Washington County; 86.4 percent in Bollinger County.

The strip mall with the election headquarters was at the top of a bluff. Black garbage bags and campaign signs covered the windows of the storefront, but through the cracks it was easy to see the place was packed, with hundreds of people watching TV, sitting in chairs, standing around talking, and buying t-shirts at the geedunk table. It looked warm and wholesome inside—all those simple colors of red, blue, and white—and more families streamed in from the parking lot. Their trucks and cars displayed messages such as:

 

TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT

—2020—

BIDEN FOR BRAIN-CAMP

HILLARY FOR PRISON

NANCY FOR NUTHOUSE

 

A man on his phone outside turned to watch as we walked past, as if we were deep-state agents on reconnaissance. My boys and I had overdressed, most of all by wearing masks, which no one else wore.

The third COVID surge had arrived, with daily new infections 20 percent higher than the week before. Nearly 9.3 million were infected in the United States, and at least 231,566 had died. The New York Times reported that 67 percent of ICU beds in the greater St. Louis area were filled.

Jack said he feared for my health but that the crowd looked like what he faced every day at LSU, and that we might be giving COVID too much credit. We dallied long enough that a second man came out to watch us until we left.

(Those who tested positive after the maskless election-night party at the White House—where Chief of Staff Mark Meadows walked around infected—included Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani; campaign advisors Corey Lewandowski and Healy Baumgardner; Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; White House political director Brian Jack; and David Bossie, who would be in charge of challenging the election loss. White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor said aides told her they “were worried the event would become a super spreader [but] felt pressured to go to save face.”)

Jack said he feared for my health but that the crowd looked like what he faced every day at LSU, and that we might be giving COVID too much credit. We dallied long enough that a second man came out to watch us until we left.

I was sorry Jack’s long day was anticlimactic, so I found an outdoor venue in St. Louis where a handful of patrons were socially distanced at picnic tables and around three campfires to watch Yamiche Alcindor explain the Red Mirage on a projection screen. Then we stopped briefly at my niece’s, for homemade soup and more results. The updates were dull and inconclusive. There would be no overwhelming repudiation of the previous four years.

I drove us back to the Land of Lincoln. The boys fell asleep in the car the way they did when they were little. They are bigger than me now, and I felt an added layer of emotion. There is a saying that daughters grow up and take care of you, but that sons give you your life back. I do not need mine back so very quickly.

 

•  •  •

 

Over the next thirty-six hours, no one broke in to counting-houses to steal mail-in ballots in Wisconsin, as one of my sources feared. Militias did not intimidate at the polls in Michigan or Indiana. Police did not raise the bridges out of the Chicago Loop to trap protestors, again. Missouri, a Trump state, went quietly for Trump.

The calm reminded me of Election Day 2016, when I invited photographer Donato DiCamillo to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to bear witness to whatever was about to occur. I was left writing, “Nothing happened … before, during, or after the fraught election—neither protests nor gloating, let alone unrest. Social norms and the veneer of southern politesse had held.”

Now, in 2020, it felt again as if history was being made in a more dramatic fashion somewhere else, silently, and that the explosion we all felt to be coming was delayed.

I drove us back to the Land of Lincoln. The boys fell asleep in the car the way they did when they were little. They are bigger than me now, and I felt an added layer of emotion. There is a saying that daughters grow up and take care of you, but that sons give you your life back. I do not need mine back so very quickly.

Still, it was a comfort being under one roof again. Jack says I decorate like an explorers’ club: books, masks from around the world, my dad’s carvings, a silk table runner from Vietnam, antique photos and postcards, mahogany-twig bookcases I bought off the street in Panama, a library table sold at auction from a university. None of it is worth much but serves as a reminder of other people, places, times, and beliefs.

This, I am realizing only now at the end of my first act as a father, has been one of my missions: to expand the walls of our house, so my sons feel safe inquiring into the world. This is nurtured by continuity in relationships—personal, material, political—and often by Something That Is, which seems to want to aid in the effort. Call it love.

 

•  •  •

 

I did not want to waste Jack’s visit, so on the second day after the election we decided to drive down to Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, a trip we had postponed, on my belief that stories can be found anywhere.

Paleo-Indians and Native Americans of the Illiniwek confederation took shelter in that cave on the bank of the Ohio River, as did river pirates, highwaymen, bandits, and serial killers—what historians in the 1830s already called the “Ancient Colony of Horse-Thieves, Counterfeiters and Robbers.” Vigilantes enacted rough justice there, and the River was an early road for immigration, westward expansion, and the purest laissez-faire capitalism. Cave-in-Rock is said to have been used as a tavern, a brothel, a gambling den, and a church in turn. Both Disney and John Ford shot there. It is a very American place.

The drive down through Southern Illinois, where my side of our family is from, was quiet. Now and then I turned on the radio for news on the vote. Jack seemed introspective. In the long run-up to the election, we had had many conversations, about politics, religion, ethics, the future. We saw many things the same way but did not agree on some key points. I am proud of his investigations and self-corrections, but when should a father let his children be who they are, the goal and inevitable outcome, after all, and when should he say, It does you no credit, or even: Wrong?

Now, in 2020, it felt again as if history was being made in a more dramatic fashion somewhere else, silently, and that the explosion we all felt to be coming was delayed.

We are very alike, which does not always make things easier. (“What is this sorcery?” Donato said of a recent photo of Jack. “Is that you, John Griswold?”)

There had been one call in which I got exasperated—scared, even, that I was losing him—and I became a person I often felt guilty for later: quieter than usual, but very precise, fluent, and cutting. I know the effect it can have; my mother did it sometimes, with less at stake. One reason for this trip, in my mind, was to see how we were doing.

 

•  •  •

 

Young people have always disregarded elders’ goals and beliefs, and it is easier than ever to understand. Our leaders often refuse to do the bare minimum to protect our people, and they try to dismantle the systems they were elected to run or to use them for cynical gain.

Many beliefs of the last century have been exposed as irrelevant or as lies: trickle-down economics, each new generation doing better than the last, college as a reasonably-sure path to employment, technology inevitably improving our lives.

Now and then I turned on the radio for news on the vote. Jack seemed introspective. In the long run-up to the election, we had had many conversations, about politics, religion, ethics, the future. We saw many things the same way but did not agree on some key points.

When I think of how Jack’s generation must view mine—I am the last Boomer—I think of the cruel and outmoded traditions of elementary school. If you are my age, you remember the right of a teacher or principal to paddle your ass with a wooden plank. You might return to the school now, out of curiosity or for fun, but you would no more submit to that authority than you would bend over and drink from their little fountains with the grime of vomit-soak around the spigots.

Having gone elsewhere, you saw that all power is contextual, and nothing of that institutional society would ever mean anything to you again, except by nostalgia.

The usual ways of the United States are revealing themselves to be irrelevant to a new generation, through poor policy, the soak of greed, and irrational hatred.

 

•  •  •

 

But things had changed for Jack, again, whether by his own thinking, my words, the news, the influence of college and new friends, or just the passage of time, and there seemed

to be no conflict between us and nothing to work out. We simply chatted, off and on, and laughed a lot.

He marveled at his new freedom by saying he could get in a car with his friends and drive across the country without even telling us, which was true. He had already used his independence to research things he was interested in, meet new people, gain office, and excel at school.

Much of being a parent, it turns out, is reacting to what your child considers a valid creative act. There is something to that, and good might come of it, is one of the happiest acknowledgments we can make.

 

•  •  •

 

The radio said Biden was at 264 electoral votes, with Arizona a sure thing. Then the count was said to be tightening, with pockets reporting in for Trump.

We stopped in McLeansboro, Illinois. The Hamilton County Historical Society was having a book sale on the town square, outside the library, which was closed for COVID. A middle-aged lady in period costume sat at a card table, selling reprints of genealogical books. We chatted, and I explained that my father grew up nearby. His father was a sharecropper in Walpole, a hamlet originally named Griswold, for its founder, Gilbert Griswold, in the 1830s.

“Oh, she’s a Griswold too,” the woman said casually, pointing to another woman unloading a pickup at the curb.

The woman’s name was Micki, and she had done much genealogical work on the Griswolds. She had thought she was one, by marriage, but there was an adoption at one point, she said. Little was left of the Griswold settlers and farmers in the area. A man had leased some of their land and raised pigs that destroyed an important cemetery, she said. Our respects could be paid only with interest.

Micki said she owned detailed records I had not seen. My wife had done research too, but there were branches in the family tree that were lost or shaky, due to possible adoptions, relocation, a divorce and remarriage in the nineteenth century, and missing census records.

Much of being a parent, it turns out, is reacting to what your child considers a valid creative act. There is something to that, and good might come of it, is one of the happiest acknowledgments we can make.

If I was actually a Griswold, going all the way back, it was an old lineage with adventurous and artistic spirit. But any family is many people. Those who came west in the 19th century were never as prosperous as those who stayed in Connecticut and New Hampshire. Recent relatives on both my parents’ sides had finished honorably, but there were also the usual rumors of affairs, bastardy, orphanhood, madness, violence. Somebody said my cousin Billy Joe shot his buddy in the ass, after a poker game, for trying to take his glass eye back when Billy Joe won it fair and square.

Jack, of course, is very interested in all these stories, but it is hard to know when to invest yourself in them. Micki said she would be in touch soon with more information. The chance encounter reaffirmed my faith in serendipity.

 

•  •  •

 

We headed down Route 142, through Eldorado and Equality, past the old salt mines and the Old Slave House, which was on the reverse underground railroad that kidnapped and returned African Americans to the South. This complication of Illinois history surprises many, which might account for the house’s rotten disrepair, though it is owned by the state.

Combines in the soybeans left curtains of red dust hanging over the road, which we drove through at 60 mph, blindly. Route 1 came down out of the Shawnee Hills and into downtown Cave-in-Rock, where it fell down a steep ramp into the Ohio River. (The car ferry was waiting, this time).

A quarter-mile up the Illinois bank was the cave, 55-feet wide at the mouth, maybe 200-feet deep. In another coincidence of names, two people named Herrin—the name of my hometown—had scratched their names in the ceiling a hundred years ago. An old man and his wife were walking their little dog, and he asked if I was from Cave-in-Rock. When I said, no, Herrin, he asked if I knew the Hoggs, and I was confused briefly over some half-remembered mention of pigs recently.

Jack and I searched the cave, chucked rocks in the River to sound it, and took in the day.

As we drove back north, I offered Jack his choice of seeing Walpole again; heading up to Grayville, where my father served in the CCC; or going to Herrin, which he has always liked to visit.

We went to Herrin and saw a man I had written about but never met. He and his wife hosted us in their yard, all of us masked. He told us stories of unexpected connections: how his mother had been the housekeeper for my grandparents in the 1920s or ’30s; how he used to live next to my oldest friend in Herrin; how his people were from Walpole too; how he had cousins in the town upstate where I currently live. The shared connections were not improbable but impossible, as writers like to say. (No one believes the merely improbable in a story.)

Jack was more talkative as we headed home. I too hold back energy until I know an event is over. I felt a great wave of empathy for my son—his intelligence, feeling, and ambition; my pride; those ties; our future.

We are all made of the same energy spread through the universe. The Something That Is pinches it into matter—stars and grasses and fish and people—and we rise to fill our individual containers, taut with possibility. Still, fathers and sons long for similarities and common words.

 

•  •  •

 

Later, Micki would email to answer a question about my great-grandfather Griswold. Suddenly, with the help of the Mormon Church, we could see, online, an apparently unbroken line of fathers and sons—twenty-four generations for Jack, who is actually John—back to a man named John Griswold, born in Warwickshire in the year 1200.

 

•  •  •

 

My title is from Czeslaw Milosz’s “Wormwood Star.” The whole line says, “We are an echo that runs, skittering, through a train of rooms.” The poem deals with the complications of inheritance, as here:

 

“The night a child is conceived, an obscure pact is concluded. // And the innocent receives a sentence, but he won’t be able to unravel its meaning. // Even if he consults ashes,stars, and flights of birds. // A hideous pact, an entanglement in blood, an anabasis of vengeful genes arriving from swampy millennia, // From the half-witted and the crippled, from crazed wenches and syphilitic kings // At mutton’s leg and barley and the slurping of soup.”

 

I told Jack that Milosz always makes me think of writer Richard Bausch, who told me, at a party I hosted in his honor in Lake Charles, about the time he brought Milosz to George Mason University. Milosz rarely left the studio apartment at Richard’s house, where he was staying, and was full of complaints. He finally came out to ask for food. Richard said he was cooking clam chowder for the family; did he want some? Milosz did not want any of that.

Richard set out a “block of cheddar cheese the size of a pack of Virginia Slims,” for everyone, and turned around to get something. He heard an Ooomp, and when he turned back, Milosz had the entire block of cheese in his mouth and was chewing it with distended cheeks.

Richard is generous with friendship, one of those figures who invites others into both his literal and his literary house. After the party he asked if I wanted to stop somewhere for another drink. I said there was a place called Pappy’s. It was on the main drag and had tables and booths and a couple of pool tables, but a guy had had his ear bitten off there not too long ago. The place was wholesome in its way, but if Richard wanted, we could join grad students downtown instead. He wanted to go to Pappy’s.

He got a red wine, and I had a whiskey and water, and he told other stories about writers, and stories about story-making, and dirty jokes that writer friends had told him. Jim Harrison had told him the one about the monkey and the cue ball, and Richard’s beloved twin brother, Bobby, told him the one about the elderly nun in Ireland who enters a dirty limerick contest. Richard can tell jokes for twelve hours without stopping. I was laughing so hard I was crying, and he gave me the great gift of saying my laughter reminded him of Bobby’s.

A guy leaning on the wall was watching us. Richard laughed and said the whole bar probably thought we were lovers who got off on age-difference. I apologized to him for wearing a tweed jacket and causing trouble, and we laughed harder.

We are all made of the same energy spread through the universe. The Something That Is pinches it into matter—stars and grasses and fish and people—and we rise to fill our individual containers, taut with possibility. Still, fathers and sons long for similarities and common words.

The townie came over and loomed. He was blotto. He demanded to know who we were but, in the bullshit way of chivalry, called us both “sir” when he did it. I answered but did not say “sir” in return.

“Don’t I get to be called ‘sir’ too?” he whined.

“Yes, sir, you sure do, sir,” I said, but I was looking at the place on his forehead where I was going to set down my glass. Richard was respectful and patient. The man came back after a few minutes and started doing pushups on the filthy floor next to our table.

“Someone wants attention,” Richard said wryly. “Ours.”

Richard got the man to tell us his name: William, not even Bill or Billy. He said he was a flight mechanic at the airport, and that because he prayed hard over the planes every time, they had never had an accident.

William told us his son was with the boy’s mother at a violin contest in Florida. Dvorak, he added, which sounded improbable. When he staggered away, we played the game of inventing backstories for his character, and Richard said the boy had been dead five years. Then William was back, with his original hint of malice, demanding to know what we had been talking about since we got there.

“We’re working on a contract,” Richard said instantly. “I’m thinking of moving here for a job, and we’re working on the details of my employment.”

There was a long pause. We waited, watching the man’s face.

“Can I help?” said the Something That Is, so snot-slinging drunk it could not look up from its shoes.

 

•  •  •

 

Before Jack left we did the usual things of continuity: got BBQ for the extended family, went for a walk with Julian, talked about the cats as they sat right next to us, listening. Biden had won, the media felt safe to announce, but that told us little about the future, near and distant.

We drove Jack to the airport. As we waited in the lounge he spotted a man sitting at a booth labeled Free Speech. I assumed it was an invitation to one of those “muh freedoms” debates and was too fatigued to engage. Jack was curious and walked over to talk to him. He was with the USO and blamed the Hare Krishnas for the booth. They had been banned from the airport for bugging travelers, so they sued the city and had to be given a space to proselytize. Now all organizations had to use the booths.

Democracy had found a way, again—though by means litigious, mechanical, and with more walls—to aid a plurality of views.

 

•  •  •

 

It seemed an unusual privilege of history that my sons and I could know twenty-four generations of our fathers. Later I asked a Washington University geneticist about it. He said it sounded unusual, but that it depended on how many children each generation had. (Several generations had a dozen or so.)

In any case, I should have eight million ancestors at the line of my family tree where John Griswold of Warwickshire is. Many have to be redundant, since the population of Britain in 1200 was less than three million. Cumulatively, over 800 years, I should have almost 17 million ancestors.

We can never know our inheritances fully, so we choose simple stories, like Charlemagne as ancestor, or irrational ones, like the alignment of stars and planets, for their significance to our lives.

We drove Jack to the airport. As we waited in the lounge he spotted a man sitting at a booth labeled Free Speech. I assumed it was an invitation to one of those “muh freedoms” debates and was too fatigued to engage. Jack was curious and walked over to talk to him.

“In 2013, geneticists Peter Ralph and Graham Coop showed that all Europeans are descended from exactly the same people. Basically, everyone alive in the ninth century who left descendants is the ancestor of every living European today, including Charlemagne,” says The Guardian.

People who write about genetics also warn not to be too proud of our influence on future generations, because we do not live on, genetically, for long in our children’s children. My sons share half my variable genes, but after 300 years, the amount of DNA any of us will share with an individual descendant is about 0.4 percent. The important part, they say, is that we all share 99.9 percent of our genes with other human beings.

Within that continuity lies our relatively limited range of social differences—politics, language, beliefs, our friends and enemies, the stories we make about the world, the actions we choose or decry. Yet see how hard that range is?

 

•  •  •

 

I held Jack tightly at the gate. Somehow he was both the ponkle I used to cradle, and the young man with a triangular-shaped back and a precocious directedness and presence of mind I did not have at his age. He was free, I acknowledged, to have his own adventures, and to be who or what he wants to be and believe, within the limits of his human inheritance and under the influence of certain meaningful conjunctions.

There were still almost eleven weeks to go before the new era.

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