Recently I realized I’ve done my post-high school education in three regions of the country where my four grandparents were from. As an undergrad, I attended Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, the Pacific Northwest. My grandmother Broadbent grew up in Seattle. For my Masters, I went to Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My grandfather Broadbent was from New England. I did my doctoral work at the Association of Chicago Theological Schools. Both of my grandparents on my mom’s side were from Chicago, specifically from a neighborhood near Midway Airport.
I’ve been thinking about my maternal grandfather lately. His name was John Johnson, but he went by Jack. Johnson was my mom’s maiden name and it is now my middle name. I don’t have a lot of vivid memories of my grandfather. What I remember most clearly is that he had throat cancer, which is why I learned at an early age what a “tracheotomy” is, and that it’s called a “trake” for short. I don’t really remember his original voice, but I do remember the sound of his trake voice, gravelly and robotic. I remember he still managed to make wise cracks and laugh even post-tracheotomy. According to my mom, Jack once told her, “That boy of yours sure is a joker.” I’m convinced I got my sense of humor and laughability from him.
While working on my doctorate, I spent three summer residencies in Hyde Park where the University of Chicago is located as well as Chicago Theological Seminary. I got around by public transportation, buses, commuter trains, and the “El.” (At Christmas, my mom used to sing, “No-El, No-El, so I took the bus.”) Riding in a bus one day, I let it sink in that my grandfather Jack was a bus driver. He had likely driven buses along the same south Chicago streets on which I was traveling. He later became a bus driving instructor. (My mom complains that he never taught her to drive a car.)
When my parents met, it was a bit of a clash of family cultures. My paternal grandparents had met at Chicago Theological Seminary and moved to New England after graduation. They were both very interested in learning and teaching. My primary memories of my grandfather Charles is of him sitting in his favorite chair reading. Frankly, it could feel like he read too much, like, for example, while his grandchildren were visiting instead of relating to them. My maternal grandparents were working class folks, a bus driver and a department store clerk. One of the stories my dad tells about his father-in-law is that, while my dad was in graduate school at Andover Newton Theological Seminary, he got into a conversation with Jack about some book my dad was reading for a course. “I read a book once,” Jack said, “It said one thing. I read another one. It said something else. Who needs books?”
As a lover of books, I recoil at this statement, but I’ve been thinking about it some more lately. It’s true, two different books can say contradictory things. In fact, one book can say more than one thing. It can be very confusing. While in college, I had a moment of panic in Powell’s Books in Portland. I was in the religion section and there were so many books about so many different religions. “How can anyone figure out which one is true?,” I thought to myself. “And what if one person is convinced that one book is totally true and another person is convinced by another book? How do we ever know what to think or believe?”
My grandpa Jack was on to something. Two books can say two completely different things. Why go on reading them? While his conclusion is abhorrent to me, I want to understand him better. Here is a man who knew the streets of Chicago better than almost anyone. He knew the traffic patterns and buildings and who lived where and what it looked like 10 years ago. He knew his regular passengers, surmised their careers, smelled alcohol on a young person’s breath, noticed when someone was wearing a new suit. Perhaps the Chicago streets were his book and perhaps they contained all he needed or cared to know about the world. Maybe he knew some things that grandpa Charles couldn’t know from the comfort of his armchair. I’m certainly not going to give up reading, but from Jack I’m going to try reading the world in front of me.
Jack died of throat cancer in 1988. I was a sophomore in high school. I couldn’t attend his funeral because I had chicken pox and was pretty sick. My other set of grandparents came and took care of me in Santa Cruz while my mom, dad, and sister were in Chicago. For 20 years, I felt like I never really said goodbye, until one day while riding on a bus in south Chicago I looked around me at the neighborhoods and saw him everywhere in the book he read every day.