Wednesday, November 28, 2007

?My Grandfather?s Son?


On Thanksgiving Day you might have been seated across the table from someone you're not too keen on—a father, a mother, a relative who's played a big role in your life. Or maybe you were far from home by choice this November day, alienated by something a family member once said or did. Or maybe you paused to remember that lost son or daughter, to remember that mother or father, grandma or grandpa who shaped your life for good or ill, or good and ill, and is dead and gone.

If so—that is, if you're a broken, struggling card-carrying member of the human race—Clarence Thomas' "My Grandfather's Son" may be for you.

The Supreme Court associate justice's memoir is a transcendent work. Although he tells what it was like growing up in the South and going off to college in the North, his memoir transcends race. Although he tells of civil rights politics and confirmation battles, the work transcends politics. In the end, it's the story of a boy, then a young man and then a not-so-young man becoming a man in full.

I've read that "My Grandfather's Son" is an "angry" book. Are there points of anger in it? Yes. Is anger one of the book's many themes? Yes. But is this an angry book? Is the Thomas who rises out of its pages an angry man? Not at all. Anyone who writes this cannot possibly have read the book.

"My Grandfather's Son" is a coming of age in the fullest sense. It's the story of a young person becoming an adult, but also the story of an adult doing the hard work of becoming a grown-up: a person of wisdom, courage, dignity, grace. It's a memoir of thoughts and second thoughts, third and countless more thoughts. It's a midlife reckoning, by a morally serious man making an accounting for his unfinished life. As such, it's a memoir of raw honesty. Indeed, his openness about his hurts, fears and failings—the breakup of his first marriage and his drinking—gives the work its lift, depth and ultimate transcendence. He manages to be open and exposed without being self-indulgent or maudlin.

The book is also, for me at least, a meditation on time and perspective and the shifts in outlook both can bring. The harsh assessment of someone—that person sitting across the Thanksgiving table—can change in an instant with a word or deed. Or a new and better appreciation of someone can come over years or decades with the benefit of time and miles.

Thomas was his grandfather's son because his biological father abandoned him. He called his grandfather "Daddy." (That's what his mother called him.) Myers Anderson was a hard man—dignified and loving in his own way, but hard. He had to be.

"The damn vacation is over," he told 7-year-old Clarence and his brother when they moved into his Savannah home. There were no hugs or praise, only sunup to sundown work, Daddyisms ("Old Man Can't is dead—I helped bury him," "You worth less than a carload of dead men,") and demands for good grades so they could get a "coat-and-tie job."

"He was dark, strong, proud, and determined to mold me in his image," Thomas writes.

He succeeded, though not without cost to both. At one point during college, Thomas "wrote him off as an ignorant illiterate incapable of understanding or facing the facts about racism." Daddy threw him out of his house after Thomas announced he had quit the seminary, violating the promise he had made when Daddy had first allowed him to attend. He refused to attend Thomas' graduation from Yale Law School.

But something happened. Things changed. Thomas changed and, to a lesser extent, Myers Anderson changed. He lavished love and attention and sugared cereals on Thomas' son, Jamal, giving his great-grandson the hugs and praise he couldn't give his grandsons, who were his "responsibility."

"(A)s I grew older," writes Thomas, "I came to appreciate what I had understood as a child. I had been raised by the greatest man I have ever known."

A few Thanksgivings can sometimes bring that kind of change.

But Thomas would be the last person to sugarcoat this story. He doesn't let himself, or us, off that hook that easily, and this is how I'd like to close this Thanksgiving Day, take it how you will:

"A time came when he was no longer harsh at all—but my memories of him were," Thomas writes. "Outwardly I treated him with respect; on the inside I still seethed over old grudges, constantly throwing up barriers to his tentative overtures. ... Eventually, the chasm that separated us became too wide to cross. It is my fault, not his, that I never tried to bridge it. Only in the last months of Daddy's life did we share a solitary embrace, and by then it was too little, too late. Not a day passes that I don't wish I had thrown open my arms sooner to that good man. Not until he was gone did I know how wrong I'd been to turn away from his love."

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